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2020–21 WILSON CHINA FELLOWSHP: Essays on the Rise of China and Its Policy Implications


Essays on the Rise of China

and Its Implications

Asia Program
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004-3027 EDITED BY
Abraham M. Denmark and Lucas Myers

Essays on the Rise of China

and Its Implications
Essays by
Darren Byler
Sara Bush Castro
Christopher Colley
Rush Doshi
Alexander Dukalskis
Sheena Chestnut Greitens
Isaac Kardon
Lami Kim
Wendy Leutert
Jessica C. Liao
Adam P. Liff
Xiao Liu
Oriana Skylar Mastro
Joshua Shifrinson
Cecilia Han Springer and Dinah Shi

Edited by
Abraham M. Denmark and Lucas Myers
This publication was made possible (in part) by a grant from
Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and
views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

©2021 The Wilson Center

Asia Program
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004-3027
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1 Foreword
Stephen Del Rosso

3 Introduction
Abraham M. Denmark

7 Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the

New Silk Road
Darren Byler

35 Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze: Evaluating the U.S.
Intelligence Process During China’s Nuclearization
Sara B. Castro

59 The Emerging Great Power Triangle: China, India and the

United States in the Indian Ocean Region
Christopher K. Colley

87 The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence

in the Arctic and Antarctica
Rush Doshi

107 Paying for Propaganda: A Preliminary Study on the Effectiveness

of Beijing’s “Advertorial” Inserts
Alexander Dukalskis

129 The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for

U.S. Policy
Sheena Chestnut Greitens

153 China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan: Counterterrorism and

the Limits of the All-Weather Partnership
Isaac B. Kardon

189 Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports
and Its Global Implications
Lami Kim

221 Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of

Chinese Policymaking
Wendy Leutert

241 China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance:

A New Belt and Road to the Global South?
Jessica C. Liao

271 Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open
Adam P. Liff

301 Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

Xiao Liu

331 Chinese Intentions in the South China Sea

Oriana Skylar Mastro

359 What’s In a Name? Varieties of Great Power Competition and the

Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations
Joshua Shifrinson

395 Sharing Water and Power: China’s Hydropower Development in

the Mekong Region
Cecilia Han Springer and Dinah Shi

419 Afterword
Robert Daly

Stephen Del Rosso is the Director of the
International Peace and Security Program at the
Carnegie Corporation of New York.

When publisher Henry Luce famously declared in his well-read and well-re-
membered 1941 Life magazine essay that the unfolding era would hence be
known as the “American Century,” he made a bold prediction at a crucial time
in global history, even before the United States had entered World War II.
After the war, American power and influence validated Luce’s claim, as Europe
lay prostrate and much of the world reeled from the effects of that enormously
destabilizing and destructive conflict. In the decades that followed, as new
problems and opportunities emerged, the century, in many ways, resounded
with a distinct American accent.
Now, 80 years after Luce’s essay, there is a new  major challenger to an
America that no longer bestrides the world as it once did. Emerging from its
own self-declared “century of humiliation,” China has risen to the rank of a
great power and—given its rapid economic development, growing military
might, and global reach—presents the United States’ with “the biggest strate-
gic test of the 21st Century.” During the Cold War, the United States faced a
Soviet Union with a comparable nuclear arsenal and a Mao-led China driven
by aggressive revolutionary fervor, but it never faced a challenge from another
great power, like today’s People’s Republic of China, whose economic strength
rivals its own.
Understanding the nature of this multifaceted challenge is at the core of
the papers contained in this publication. Carnegie Corporation of New York,
the grantmaking foundation established in 1911 by the Scottish-born indus-
trialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to promote the “the advance-
ment and diffusion of knowledge and understanding,” is proud to support the
Wilson China Fellowship program at the Wilson Center that furthers this

Stephen Del Rosso

cause. The program is aimed at expanding the range of current scholarship on

China, with particular interest in projects that “transcend narrow specialties
and methodological boundaries, and that focus on topics that are understud-
ied, unconventional, unique, emerging, or new within academic and policy
discussions”—and, importantly, “have relevance to public policy.”
By not only advancing empirically based, analytically rigorous, policy-rel-
evant research, but also promoting a new generation of American experts on
China, Corporation grantmaking—as exemplified by this program—seeks to
continue addressing one of the most pressing and significant issues on the in-
ternational peace and security agenda.
We hope you find this volume both insightful and thought-provoking.

Stephen Del Rosso

Director, International Peace and Security Program
Carnegie Corporation of New York

Abraham M. Denmark is the Director of the
Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance de-

scribes China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its
economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained
challenge to a stable and open international system.”1 This policy guidance
follows two administrations that also spent considerable policy resources
wrestling with the best means of addressing the rise of China with the Obama
administration’s “Pivot to Asia” and the Trump administration’s “Free and
Open Indo-Pacific.” It also follows several years of rising tension between the
United States and China, growing confidence in Beijing that China’s time has
come to emerge as a great power, and a wider understanding in the policy and
scholarly communities that “competition” increasingly comes to define the
U.S.-China relationship. Fundamentally, the Biden administration’s Interim
National Security Strategic Guidance acknowledges both the central role that
China has come to play in Washington’s discussion on foreign policy and the
scale of the challenge facing U.S. policymakers. At stake are the international
system and the predominant position that the United States has enjoyed since
the Second World War.
As U.S. policymakers within the new administration and foreign policy
leaders on Capitol Hill grapple with this challenge, the development of in-
formed, academically-grounded analysis is increasingly vital to U.S. foreign pol-
icy. Considering the Wilson Center’s Congressional mandate to symbolize and
strengthen “the fruitful relation between the world of learning and the world of
public affairs,”2 it is therefore imperative that the Center nurture the next gen-
eration of American scholarship examining the implications of China’s rise for
both the United States and for the rest of the Indo-Pacific. The Wilson China
Fellowship, established with the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation
of New York, is a result of our efforts to address these critical issues.

Abraham M. Denmark

I could not be more pleased with the first class of Wilson China Fellows.
Featuring sixteen scholars (eight men and eight women), this class represents
American scholars working in eight states and the District of Columbia and
three continents around the world, two of whom, Dr. Rush Doshi and Dr.
Julian Gewirtz joined the Biden administration during the fellowship.3
Even in the midst of COVID-19, the Wilson China Fellows worked dili-
gently and effectively to conduct their research projects. They variously in-
terviewed experts and stakeholders, carried out surveys, collected datasets,
developed theoretical contributions, and analyzed language sources, all to
enhance our understanding of China. Armed with their findings, our schol-
ars then produced policy papers designed to help bridge the divide between
academia and policymakers, while also expanding and deepening the con-
versation on China in the United States across a wide range of vital issue
areas. The quality of their scholarship has been remarkable, and each essay
they produced has important lessons to be learned for scholars and policy-
makers alike.
Several scholars examine security issues across China’s strategic periphery.
Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro examines Beijing’s intentions in the South China
Sea and their implications for the United States. Dr. Isaac Kardon’s analysis
of China’s relations with Pakistan describes the focus as well as the limita-
tions of cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad. Dr. Christopher Colley’s
essay focuses on the US-China-India strategic triangle, which is particularly
significant following the deadly dispute that erupted over the Line of Actual
Control along the China-India border, as well as the stronger ties being rap-
idly built between Washington and New Delhi. Dr. Adam Liff’s essay exam-
ines how the U.S.-Japan Alliance can engage Taiwan and enhance deterrence
vis-à-vis China’s rising assertiveness.
Some of our scholars explore the question of Chinese authoritarianism
and its potential impacts within China and abroad. Dr. Darren Byler, avail-
ing himself of internal police documents in Xinjiang, details the inner-work-
ings of Chinese repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, while Dr. Sheena
Chestnut Greitens discusses the export of Chinese surveillance technology
and its potential impact across the globe.
This class also features several scholars examining the economic and en-
vironmental aspects of China’s foreign policy. Dr. Jessica Liao’s analysis of


China’s “Green Mercantilism” explores the issues of environmental gover-

nance in China’s foreign policy, while Dr. Lami Kim specifically focuses on
China’s exports of nuclear power and its implications. Finally, Dr. Cecilia Han
Springer focuses on the critical issue of China’s development of hydropower in
Southeast Asia—an issue that is as political as it is economic.
Others examine underappreciated elements of China’s rise, from data
policy to “new frontiers.” Dr. Rush Doshi explores Chinese policy in inter-
national “new frontiers,” such as its attempts to leverage the polar regions for
competition. Dr. Alexander Dukalskis studies Chinese “advertorials,” or paid
advertisements placed in major newspapers, and seeks to understand how they
might alter readers’ perceptions of China and its influence. Dr. Xiao Liu ana-
lyzes the state of China’s domestic policy on data governance and privacy to
expose surprising advocacy from private citizens and others for enhanced data
privacy standards. Dr. Wendy Leutert looks into “policy collaging,” a concept
that describes the surprising influence that cross-border movements of people
and ideas have had on Chinese domestic policymaking.
This cohort also highlights unique and informative analyses of the current
state and future of U.S.-China relations. Dr. Sara Castro examines a history
of American intelligence analysis of China, focusing on China’s development
of its own nuclear weapons during the 1960s and the risk posed by biases in
understanding China. And Dr. Joshua Shifrinson’s essay places U.S.-China
competition in a historical and theoretical perspective that is essential reading
for scholars and policymakers alike.
After reading each of these valuable essays, it is clear that the implications
of China’s rise, and the contours of U.S.-China competition, are far more com-
plex and nuanced than is generally appreciated. Each of our scholars provides
valuable insight into various important aspects of China policy, and these
essays cover the breadth of important issues pertaining to the rise of China,
U.S.-China relations, and the Indo-Pacific. As a primary goal of this fellow-
ship, the Wilson Center hopes to support rising scholars and new voices on
China in the United States, and these scholars and their research demonstrate
the importance of this initiative. As the conversation on China expands and
grows to incorporate new and diverse voices, our understanding of the issues
and the complexities inherent to the challenge grows commensurately. Only
with a firm understanding of the challenge can the United States can more

Abraham M. Denmark

effectively prepare itself for a 21st century in which China will increasingly
impact many facets of foreign policy and international affairs.
I expect that future classes of the Wilson Fellowship will only add more
detail and intricacy to our understanding of these dynamics. Clearly, more
than simply a re-run of the Cold War, American policymakers will be well-
served by appreciating these complexities while formulating revisions to their
strategy toward China and the Indo-Pacific.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

1. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, The White
House, March 2021,
pdf, 8.
2. An Act to Establish a National Memorial to Woodrow Wilson, Public Law 90–637, U.S.
Statutes at Large 82 (1968),
STATUTE-82-Pg1356.pdf, 1356–1359.
3. As a result of joining the administration, Dr. Julian Gewirtz was unable to contribute his
essay to this collection.


Chinese Infrastructures of
Population Management on
the New Silk Road

Darren Byler is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and

Post-Doctoral Fellow with the China Made Research
Initiative at the Center for Asian Studies, University of
Colorado Boulder
Darren Byler

This essay examines the way Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region in Northwest China have found themselves caught in
webs of surveillance and biometric control that restricts their movement and
cultural practices. While tightly focused on an archive of thousands of re-
cently obtained internal police files from the Ürümchi Public Security Bureau
in the capital of the region, this research also assesses the extent to which
these technologies have traveled to other spaces in China and around the
world. This research presents five primary findings. First, the internal police
reports document that around 80 percent of policing focuses on Uyghurs and
other Muslims despite them representing less than 20 percent of the popula-
tion in the city. Second, surveillance infrastructure is being used to eliminate
or diminish the role of social institutions such as mosques and family life in
Muslim society. The reports frame this process as intentional and a success.
Third, the system depends to a significant degree on low level police labor at
checkpoints and in home inspections. Fourth, political ideology is a key fea-
ture of the system—”flag-raising ceremonies” where people pledge loyalty to
the state show up again and again in the reports. Fifth, top-down coercion
is a strong feature throughout the system, with quotas, incentives, and pun-
ishments for both the surveilled and the surveillance workers. The density of
policing infrastructure, combined with the ideological fervor of counter-ter-
rorism, creates a criminalization of normative behavior and normalizes inter-
personal cruelty that is unparalleled elsewhere in China. Without foreclos-
ing the possibility that Uyghurs and other Muslims will find ways to protect
their human autonomy from this new system of control, the essay concludes
that it is likely that within a single generation Muslim embodied practice and
Turkic languages in Northwest China will cease to provide essential ways for
Uyghurs and other targeted groups to bring their knowledge systems into the
present. At the same time, because of the specific ideological and human labor
components of the system it is also difficult to replicate even in other frontier
spaces of China such as Hong Kong. In order to mitigate harms to Muslims
in Northwest China and toward other unprotected populations the essay pro-
poses several policy recommendations.

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

Policy Recommendations:
● At the broadest level, policymakers and concerned citizens everywhere
should advocate for community-led policing reform in order to mitigate
harmful effects of policing on marginalized populations.

● At the same time the United States should work with partner nations
to develop a global body to regulate harmful forms of surveillance on a
company and country neutral basis.

● Such coalitions should develop initiatives to develop democratically-

driven technology alternatives designed to mitigate harms to
unprotected populations.

● In the shorter-term U.S. companies should not actively and knowingly

support and supply companies involved in Xinjiang surveillance. The U.S.
government should require supply chain transparency.

● U.S. policymakers should strive to create targeted assessments and

regulation of Chinese firms which design tools to automate racialization
and harm to minorities.

Darren Byler

Over the past two decades Chinese Public Security Bureaus across China
have increasingly begun to build and deploy interlinked systems of sur-
veillance technology through private-public partnerships with technology
companies. Since 2010, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has be-
come a limit case for the development of such technologies. Xinjiang now
has one of the highest densities of surveillance cameras, face-recognition
checkpoints, and digital forensics infrastructures of any location in the
world. From cellular towers, mobile devices, to smart ID systems, QR
coded housing, neighborhood-level sub-monitoring stations, centralized
command centers, server rooms, and “smart” detention camps, a system of
digital enclosure has enveloped the 24 million people who live in the vast
Muslim-majority region.
Some of the developers of these data-intensive technologies see Xinjiang
as a space to develop and train new prediction products that can be mar-
keted to other governments and corporations.1 Large companies deemed
“national-level artificial intelligence champions” by the Ministry of Science
and Technology, have shown particular aptitude in adapting surveillance plat-
forms to the requirements of other governments.2 Recent research has shown
that already as many as 100 nations—many of whom are located on the Belt
and Road development Initiative (BRI)—have purchased “safe city solutions”
from such private Chinese technology firms.3 Yet, despite this spread, it re-
mains unclear how exported systems will affect the societies where they are
adapted. What would it take for other governments to develop systems similar
to the surveillance platform that has been deployed in Xinjiang?
In order to answer this question, this essay examines the scales and capaci-
ties of the Xinjiang system as deployed in Ürümchi—the capital city of the
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Drawing on a database of approxi-
mately 40,000 internal police files, it first describes the effects of the surveil-
lance system in Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui social life. It then turns to the role of
human labor, ideology and state power in implementing and maintaining the
system. After considering these unique attributes of the Xinjiang system, the
essay than discusses the possibility of adaptation of similar systems in other
frontier spaces of global China such as Hong Kong. A final section examines
what institutional supports would be necessary to replicate the system in non-

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

Chinese spaces and how the policy community should respond to these chal-
lenges in China and around the world.

Reading Internal Files from the

Ürümchi Mobile Police System
Since the arrival of 3-G cellular networks in Xinjiang in early 2010, police
in Xinjiang have begun experimenting with Mobile Police Systems ( Jingwu
Tong).4 Several months after large scale violence in the region on July 5, 2009,
police in Ürümchi and other urban locations purchased a trial number of 20
third generation mobile scanning devices to check vehicles on high traffic
routes.5 On June 27, 2013 the Public Security Bureau of Ürümchi purchased
34 more mobile units for use in foot patrols.6 These devices integrated 3G mo-
bile technology through smart phone terminals and VPN-enabled database
synchronization in order to allow rapid individual identity authentication.
Later that year, more than 20,000 of the devices were distributed to police in
locations throughout Xinjiang.7 By late 2016, a fourth generation Xinjiang-
specific version of the system arrived. This version of the system allowed sec-
ond-generation ID cards to be scanned and read instantly linking ID numbers,
issuers, and photos to the individual being checked to a cloud-based database.8
Within several months yet another version of the system allowed for auto-
mated Uyghur-Chinese translation.9 By mid-2017 this mobile platform was
joined by yet another app that linked the smart phones of government work-
ers to a region-wide Integrated Joint Operations Platform. 10 And around the
same time Xinjiang Public Security Bureaus purchased yet another mobile
digital forensics tool, referred to as “counter-terrorism swords,” which search
through digital histories and data stored on devices for flagged materials.11 By
this time mobile policing systems appear to have become ubiquitous from the
smallest villages to the largest cities across Xinjiang.
Over 2020 I have analyzed parts of a 52 gigabyte internal police dataset
obtained by The Intercept. The dataset contains close to 250 million rows of
data which make up tens of thousands of police files. These files were recov-
ered largely from the Mobile Police System of Ürümchi, the standardized
mobile policing system nested within the larger Integrated Joint Operations
Platform. The majority of these files dated to 2018 and 2019 are short reports

Darren Byler

of encounters between Public Security Bureau “police assistants” (xiejing)

and flagged individuals. The reports list the date and time of the encounter,
the precinct, name, ID number, gender, ethnicity and phone number of the
suspect. They describe the reason why the individual was flagged and if they
warrant further investigation. They also list the geolocation of the encounter.
Although the data in these “social incident” reports is quite brief, because of
the biographical and geographic data they contain they are useful in mapping
the spread, regularity, and scale of checkpoints across Ürümchi.
The city of Ürümchi has an official population of 2.2 million and is over
70 percent Han, according to the 2018 Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook. In the
northern districts of the city the Han population makes up more than 85 per-
cent of the population. In the south district of Tian Shan, Uyghurs make up
27 percent of the population. The greatest density of checks archived in the
dataset are in the Tian Shan district of the city where the highest proportion
of Uyghurs live. The greatest number of flagged individuals recorded in the
dataset are Uyghur. The supermajority are Muslim—Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui,
Kyrgyz and others. These “social incident” reports and larger weekly popu-
lation management reports provide thousands of names, ID numbers and
other identifiers of people who were detained by the Ürümchi Public Security
Bureau. They also describe minute details of the way the family members of
detainees were subjected to checks and targeted observation.
More detailed weekly intelligence reports filed by local police precincts pro-
vide more clues to the effects of the surveillance system, how it is implemented,
and its capacities. While there is some variation between precincts the major-
ity of these weekly reports follow a standardized schema. Each weekly report
begins with a general section called the “situation of the enemy” (diqing). It is
comprised of a discussion of the prior week’s “push clues” (tuisong xiansuo) and
supervision orders sent by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform regarding
people within the precinct’s jurisdiction, cases under investigation, and the
management and control of local religious institutions. Then zooming out to
the level of the urban district it discusses broader social stability issues such as
special Party meetings or changing work patterns. The second major section
of each weekly report is called the “situation of the neighborhood watch unit”
(sheqing). It considers special unit level campaigns related to the “People’s War
on Terror” such as an amorphous “three cleansings” campaign—which focused

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

FIGURE 1. Distribution of police check “social incident” reports

archived in the Ürümchi Mobile Police System in 2018–2019. The largest
concentrations are in Uyghur majority neighborhoods in the Tian Shan
District (Image by The Intercept).

Leaflet | Map data © OpenStreetMap contributers, CC-BY-SA, imagery © Mapbox

FIGURE 2. An example of the type of data contained in “social incident”

reports in the Ürümchi Mobile Police System (personal identifiers have
been obscured) (Image by The Intercept).

Leaflet | Map data © OpenStreetMap contributers, CC-BY-SA, imagery © Mapbox

Darren Byler

on illegalized religious teachings, materials, and relationships contained in

household objects and digital devices. They often discussed the endless search
for “terrorism” related videos—ranging from news items to videos of street pro-
tests. And they documented the weekly operations of the community’s People’s
Convenience Police Stations—the surveillance hubs responsible for invasive
checks of targeted individuals. Finally there is a report about the “targeted
group” (teshu qunti)—the “three categories people”—who are being monitored
within each jurisdiction. As outlined in a Chinese government document
submitted to the UN, this term refers to three categories of detainees: people
whose extremism did not rise to the level of criminality, those whose extrem-
ism was unintentional, and those who had been convicted of past crimes.12 In
a more general sense the term is applied to those who have been affected by the

FIGURE 3. Reports from the Mobile Police Network of the Ürümchi Public
Security Bureau from 2018–2019 skewed dramatically toward Uyghurs,
despite them comprising only 12.9 percent of Ürümchi’s population as of
2018. More than 84 percent of reports focused on Muslim minorities.
Only 16 percent focused exclusively on the Han population, which makes
up 71 percent of the city’s population.

16% Uyghur

4% Kazakh

Speakers of minority
languages (includes
Uyghurs, Kazakhs,
Kyrgyz, and others)

29% Hui



Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

interrelated and vaguely defined “three evil forces” of ethnic separatism, reli-
gious extremism or violent terrorism.13
Among the regular weekly reports, many of which become repetitive
over time, there are also occasional “risk analysis reports.” One such report
regarding Ramadan 2018 from the Xiheba Police Station in the Tian Shan
District provides some of the most detailed and straightforward assessment
of the goals and effects of the Ürümchi policing system. It begins by saying
“As part of the harsh crackdown, two imams from the mosque in Xiheba
have been detained and charged.” This, it explains, has not caused any trouble
since the assistant imam has also been transferred to another district and
thus all formal religious activities at the Xiheba mosque have thus been sus-
pended. While the mosque remains open, the number of people who entered
the mosque to pray during the first 4 months of 2018 had dropped by 96.52
percent as compared to 2017 when 80,211 people attended the mosque to
pray. In total, it continues, “there are 167 believers remaining in the precinct
jurisdiction. Among those people, 5 of them are the relatives of the ‘three
categories people.’” The remaining attendees are elderly and have residency
permits to live in the district.
The next section of the report then discusses the reasons for what it calls
a “dramatic decrease” in mosque attendance. First it says that demolition
projects, which evicted many Uyghurs from the city, had the effect of relocat-
ing the population. Second, it credits the success of the “deextremification”
campaign in “developing and transforming the consciousness and thoughts”
of the population. The third factor had to do with “strictly implementing a
real-name checkpoint system to enter the mosque.” The fourth factor were
a number of policies which were “beneficial for the people” (huimin). It ex-
plained that these initiatives required migrants from Uyghur majority areas in
Southern Xinjiang to return to their villages, where they were then assessed by
local authorities. Finally, “problematic” people in the Xiheba jurisdiction had
been detained and subjected to reeducation, this in turn, it notes, has resulted
in a further drop in the “actual population” of the district.
The report further specifies that religious people are afraid to pray in the
mosque because they “have been told that those who enter the mosque more
than 200 times will be sent to ‘education’”—the widely used euphemism for
the detention camp system. The police also reported that they discovered no

Darren Byler

instances of people conducting “illegal” prayers at home or in any other unau-

thorized place—another violation that can result in detention.
Yet despite the apparent policing “success” of the anti-extremism infra-
structure, the report notes that there is still cause to remain vigilant. Much of
this concern centered around the attitudes and effects of the system on rela-
tives of camp detainees. It explains:

The relatives of the “three categories people” are primarily concerned

with the question “When can I see my relatives who have been de-
tained?” They face obstacles in finding jobs because of the label they
now carry, so they have trouble entering the workforce and finding
an income. This brings certain risks to our society. Some children of
the “three categories people” also face difficulty in kindergarten and
school. There are frequent complaints and emotional instability among
the relatives. Most of the detainees are the breadwinners of their fami-
lies, so their family members have had financial difficulties since they
were detained. Even though the neighborhood watch unit has provided
supportive measures, they cannot solve these underlying issues. So this
group of people has become a source of instability and potential risk
for our society. This is further exacerbated because of the demolition of
their “shantytowns.” Although they have lost their homes, the relatives
of “three category people” have difficulty renting apartments. Instead
entire families now stay together in a single dorm room. This is also
difficult to manage and has potential risks.

Concern with the controlled management of the relatives of “three catego-

ries people” appears in nearly every report in the data set. In weekly reports
from the Shuimoguo District of Ürümchi between February 2018 and March
2019 the phrase “three categories people” appears 5467 times. Managing this
population along with meeting the constant demand for intelligence gath-
ering quotas form the core of neighborhood level activity in the Ürümchi
Mobile Policing System.

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

Human Labor
The primary actors in the Mobile Police System are a category of contracted
security officers that I refer to elsewhere as “data police.”14 Beginning in late
2016, hundreds of advertisements from Xinjiang Public Security Bureaus
for “auxiliary police” and other workers appeared across Xinjiang. The
scholars James Leibold and Adrian Zenz show that approximately 90,000
new officers were hired.15 While some of these officers were formal Public
Security Bureau employees who were transferred to Xinjiang from other
provinces, the vast majority were low-level contracted employees referred to
as assistant police (xiejing).16 After one-week boot-camp like training, they
were assigned to posts in newly built People’s Convenience Police Stations.
These stations, which function as surveillance hubs within a policing grid,
formed central nodes in a system of surveillance that an Ürümchi police
chief purported to be “seamless”17—a response to Xi Jinping’s 2014 call to
build “walls of steel” and a “net over the sky” to defend against Muslim ter-
rorism.18 The tasks of these data police consisted of “fixed duty, video patrol,
car patrol, foot patrol, and plainclothes patrol.”19 Based on prior research, it
is clear that much of the work of police assistants focused on the first two
tasks, sorting populations at fixed checkpoints and watching banks of video
monitors. 20 In some areas such as mosques and train stations, face recogni-
tion enabled cameras would issue alarms if someone identified by a watchlist
walked in front of them. 21 Over time, as police assistants gained experience
they were given more tools and more authority to conduct spot checks of
pedestrians and drivers.
The Ürümchi Mobile Police dataset makes clear that actions carried out
by police assistants that occurred in People’s Convenience Police stations, at
fixed checkpoints and through spot checks form the bulk of the data recorded
in the system. For instance over the week of April 23, 2018 in the Qidaowan
precinct of Ürümchi’s Shuimogou District, 40 officers scanned the phones of
2057 people using a digital forensics tool called an “Anti-Terrorism Sword.”
These devices made by a range of companies use software developed by the
company Meiya Pico and the Ürümchi Public Security Bureau to search for
more than 53,000 unique identifiers of Islamic or political activity. In addi-
tion to scanning phones, the police assistants also manually scanned the faces
of 935 people using face recognition technology. Throughout 2018 the weekly

Darren Byler

FIGURE 4. Adult population of Qidaowan Precinct, Ürümchi, week of

April 23, 2018. One out of every 15 Uyghur, Kazakh or Hui adults is
in detention. It is likely that as many as 27 percent of the adult ethnic
minority population was not assessed during this week. A small number
of minority adults may be counted in more than one category. A small
number of Han adults may have also had their phones scanned.

Han adult population
Ethnic minority adults
phone scanned

Ethinic minority
relatives of detainees
on watchlist
Ethnic minority adults
in detention

Remaining ethnic
minority adults

reports present slight fluctuations in these numbers, some weeks the police
assistants scanned slightly more, some weeks slightly less. As of 2018 the total
population of Qidaowan was approximately 36,000, of which 6569 were
ethnic minorities such as Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui, and around two thirds
were adults. As my prior research has shown, police assistants prioritized scan-
ning Muslim adult residents.22 This means that in an average week perhaps
as many as half of the adult Muslim population in the jurisdiction were sub-
jected to phone scans. In another report, police assistants reported residents
complaining that their phones “had been scanned no fewer than 10 times.”
Often the scan of either IDs or phones would result in a “yellow warning”

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

which ­according to another report indicated the person was the relative of a
detainee. A “red warning” resulted in immediate detention and investigation.
This data, along with similar reports from precincts across Ürümchi, shows
that a large percentage of the population was largely untargeted by the sur-
veillance systems. A supermajority of the Muslim population on the other
hand was subjected to regular scans, watch lists, and detentions. Only approx-
imately 27 percent of the adult minority population was not targeted. This
further demonstrates that a “reeducation campaign” must target entire com-
munities. It also requires a whole of society mobilization which focuses on the
minority population. Technology extends the power of this focused mobiliza-
tion by automating certain actions and applying a numerical calculus—200
mosque visits, 10 phone checks and so on—to evaluations. The technology
systems cannot simply be plugged in and work their magic on their own. They
require a great deal of labor and ideological focus. State power—the ability to
affect the behavior and thinking of those within a state’s sovereign regime—
must be mobilized and brought to bear not only on the surveilled, but also
those carrying out the surveillance. That is to say, the force of the surveillance
platform used in Xinjiang produces overt coercion and manufactures tacit
consent from differently positioned members of a surveillant society.
Surveillance platforms allow the work of spying on Muslim community
members to be quantified and given a quota. In a city-wide report, leaders in
the Ürümchi Public Security Bureau admonished low level workers “in all de-
partments” to collect actionable intelligence rather than information about
activities unrelated to counter-terrorism or ethnic minority issues. The report
notes that much of the intelligence that workers input in the system were
“fillers created just to meet the intel quota. They cannot be used.” This form
of noise in the system has an effect on the overall usefulness of data assess-
ment tools, the report explains, because it requires manual intervention and
a great deal of time to sort through it. In order to streamline data collection
which focuses more fully on the People’s War on Terror, they directed low
level workers—including police assistants and neighborhood watch unit em-
ployees—to avoid reporting on the general social situation in their precinct.
For instance, the report notes, resident reports regarding kids urinating in the
elevator should not be considered actionable intelligence. It was also impor-
tant to note the full names and ID numbers of people encountered in “social

Darren Byler

incidents”—indeed some ID numbers included in the dataset are incomplete.

They should also not focus on rumors and reports that were unrelated to
counter-terrorism and minority policy. For instance, reports of people being
scammed while buying mooncakes online should not be included. Social life
issues such as Uyghur kids playing soccer noisily next to the road should not
be included. Nor should there be reports about the lack of cleaning supplies in
the People’s Convenience Police Station. Garbage not being cleaned up or kids
fighting should not be reported. Issues related to resolved issues should also
not be counted as part of the intel quota. For example, when the police arrived
on the scene of an alleged cafeteria fight at a construction site, they found no
one had been hurt. There was thus no need to report it.
This report is significant for two reasons. First it says directly that low level
officers were given quotas to collect intelligence related to the Muslims living
in their districts. This is significant because it provides an incentive to profile
and manufacture intelligence about Muslims in the community. Second, the
report shows how essential human intelligence is to the functioning of the sys-
tem. The algorithms of surveillance platforms are only as good as the data they
are trained on. By introducing non-Muslim related noise into the system, the
police assistants and neighborhood watch unit employees were making the
system less effective. This points to a third issue. In order for these systems to
be effective, the technicians who operationalize these systems must be trained
themselves in what counts as actionable intelligence. This also means that
large segments of social life—all the non-Muslim parts of life—fall outside
the purview of the surveillance system. The police work thus comes to serve
the needs of the algorithm, producing an unthinking normality in how Public
Security Bureau employees encounter the world and consider the human costs
of Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui detentions. Rather than seeing urban life as a
whole, increasingly social and political life is filtered through the interface of
data assessment tools which themselves were trained around ideological im-
peratives of transforming Muslims.
The reeducation campaign and the Mobile Police System also incorporated
the work of employees in Neighborhood Watch Units or shequ. In other con-
texts, these units of civil servants formally employed by the Ministry of Civil
Affairs, not the Public Security Bureau, are sometimes described as neighbor-
hood or community committee units.23 In this context though, their offices

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

function as a “watch unit.” As I have shown in other research, in Xinjiang

these units have formal sub-command or monitoring centers with banks
of screens. They coordinate extensively with People’s Convenience Police
Stations and larger Public Security Bureau precincts. As one former Xinjiang
officer told me in an interview for this paper:

Neighborhood watch units are the base of the policing hierarchy in

Xinjiang. Everyone knows this. The people who are working in the
units aren’t actually police, they are government officials. But their job
is to gather information about their residents, such as where do those
residents live, where do they work, do they have financial or domestic
difficulty in their daily life and are they satisfied with the government.
In the past, their job was to help people in need. But now, especially
after the violence of 2009, their job has become similar to the job of
the police. They directly report the information they gather to the
police station in their jurisdiction. Police in the precinct police stations
reported that information up to the district police station. Police in the
district police station in turn report information up to the municipal
Public Security Bureau. So there are four levels in the policing relation-
ship, with the People’s Convenience Police Stations providing extra
extensions of both the neighborhood watch units and the precincts.

Much of the data included in the weekly reports in the Mobil Police System
focused directly on the Neighborhood Watch Unit management of the “tar-
geted population”—in this case, the adult relatives of detainees and the chil-
dren of detainees. For instance, in Qidaowan 278 “three categories people” had
been detained and 810 of their relatives were on a watchlist. As a controlled
population cadres and other workers in the neighborhood watch unit were re-
quired to enter their homes on a daily basis. According to the reports, during
visits the cadres were told to ensure that a digital forensics app called “Clean
Net Guard” which monitored their movement and communication was in-
stalled on their phones.24 The government workers made sure that an “absence
of religious atmosphere” was maintained by “thoroughly checking” the resi-
dents and their belongings. They reported on the “good attitudes” of the rela-
tives, made sure they recorded their scheduled phone calls with detainees, and

Darren Byler

that they attended flag raising ceremonies and political education events. These
workers also used an app connected to the larger Integrated Joint Operations
Platform (IJOP) to assure that each resident had provided their biometric data.
“If we discovered a suspicious alert through the IJOP, we notified the National
Security Team,” a Qidaowan report noted.

Ideology and State Power

The attention paid to ideology in the reports indicate a level of acceptance and
consent on the part of state workers in the necessity of the reeducation cam-
paign. Indeed, an element of the campaign centered on manufacturing passion
for the surveillance project. For instance, in a March 2, 2018 report from the
Liudaowan Precinct in Ürümchi discusses a neighborhood watch unit project
to watch the patriotic blockbuster film Operation Red Sea—a 2018 film about
Chinese special forces rescuing Chinese citizens and other foreign nationals
from the port of Aden during the 2015 Yemeni Civil War. The film which
is presented as a Chinese entry point into the Global War on Terror was the
highest grossing Chinese film of 2018. In Ürümchi the unit organized a trip
to the theater for intelligence workers. The post cinema experience notes, “by
watching this type of movie, our sense of Chinese national identity and the
national mission of our staff was increased. The staff actively want to contrib-
ute to the social stability of Xinjiang by doing their job well.” The next step
according to the secretary of the unit would be to organize movie viewings for
residents across the precinct jurisdiction. “After watching it we will discuss it
together and help to build everyone’s patriotism,” the report concluded.
The reports took great care in noting how receptive the relatives of detain-
ees were to these monitoring visits, including the terms of endearment the de-
tainee’s relatives used to refer to the state workers. In many of the reports, the
state workers describe providing “comfort” (anwei) to the relatives of detain-
ees. Nearly every weekly report also emphasized the role of flag raising cere-
monies in raising the consciousness of residents. They say directly that the rel-
atives of detainees, and migrants who did not have household registration in
the district, were required to attend each week. At the ceremonies, people on
the watch lists, and others, were asked to stand and declare their vows ( fash-
eng liangjian) to fight for the nation and against terrorism.25 As a Qidaowan

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

report from October 15, 2018 put it, this type of consciousness raising would
contribute to the “deep rooting-out of ‘two-faced people’”—those who pub-
licly supported state policy, but privately dissented.
In weekly reports collected over a year from across the Shuimogou District
of Ürümchi the term “thinking” (sixiang) appears 4,187 times. Much of what
the police assistants and neighborhood watch unit employees were monitoring
was the thinking or “state of mind” (sixiang zhuangkuang) of their Muslim
neighbors. The “comfort” and consciousness raising work of the state work-
ers both aspects of ideological practice. By placing themselves in the position
of comforters and educators, the workers projected a resolved yet ideologi-
cally committed human self-image. They also appeared to be monitoring and
building their own inner resolve—steeling themselves against “two-faced”
thoughts. The regular repetition of flag raising ceremony recitations, fists
raised in loyalty to the Party, had a norming effect. In fact, sorting out “nor-
mal” from “abnormal” social behavior—terms that appeared thousands of
times as well—became their primary task. In this sense, low level intelligence
workers came to become arbiters of what counted as normal, and by exten-
sion what the surveillance systems counted as “safe” ( fangxin). Maintaining
a focus on the work of cultural and social engineering required a driving pas-
sion. It meant that people needed to engage with movies like “Operation Red
Sea” and see their own ideology work as an extension of the patriotic, counter-
terrorism they saw enacted on screen. In short, a Liudaowan report puts it,
“most now believe in doing their part to achieve world peace.” Through the
infrastructure of the surveillance platform, state power and “thought work”
seeped into nearly all aspects of majority-minority relations.

Domestic Seepage
As Jennifer Pan has shown, since the early 2000s Chinese state authorities
have embarked on a widespread plan to engage targeted populations ranging
from religious and ethnic minorities to former prisoners and protestors with
what she terms “repressive assistance.”26 What began as a welfare campaign
to address poverty among historically marginalized populations was trans-
formed into a program of surveillance and control through a mechanism of
authoritarian statecraft she refers to as “seepage.” This process describes the

Darren Byler

way state power begins to shape the effects of seemingly unrelated programs
and infrastructures. A paradigmatic example of this approach is the way pov-
erty alleviation programs—which often do offer real aid or jobs—simultane-
ously extract data from targeted groups and foster forms of unfreedom and
forced labor. The Xinjiang case is an extreme example of the way state power
seeps through and pervades the whole of society via government fostered cam-
paigns and infrastructure systems.
In this context, surveillance infrastructures should be thought of as an
outcome and driver of both authoritarian statecraft and global economies.
Surveillance infrastructure promote the movement or transformation of hid-
den or resistant populations into the domain of the state. They also create
their own facts; they detect crime where previously there was simply social be-
havior. They classify and count human behavior in particular ways and train
the people who implement them to do the same. That is to say, they simulta-
neously create systems of interconnection and exclusion. They are also built
and implemented through global supply chains and markets, even as they find
local variations in applications. In this sense surveillance systems transcend
scale. They produce local effects while at the same time feed back into political
decisions, social futures, and economic development at broader domestic and
global scales.
Versions of the systems that are in place in Xinjiang, are also in effect in
other parts of China. As a number of studies have shown, Sharp Eyes and Safe
City projects which target specific populations through grid style policing are
the norm throughout the country.27 What is unique about Xinjiang, and to a
lesser extent Tibet, is the density of both human intelligence and signals in-
telligence tools. The population of low-level police assistants and neighbor-
hood watch unit personnel in Xinjiang is without parallel in the rest of the
country. Likewise, the scale and fidelity of biometric data collection and the
density of regularized surveillance checkpoints are unmatched in any other
part of China. And of course, undergirding the entire system is extrajudicial
and arbitrary detention of over a million Muslims in camps and prisons across
the region—something that again is non-existent in such scale elsewhere in
China, even in Tibet.
Part of what the scale of human intelligence, intensive technological intel-
ligence and extralegal detention system accomplishes is a type of institutional

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

capture. The report of dramatic decrease in mosque attendance and the re-
cords of thousands of family separations included in the Mobile Police System
dataset make plain that faith-based social organizations, and the basic family
unit of Muslim society itself, have been captured by surveillance platform. As
other research has shown, since 2017 natural birthrates have fallen dramati-
cally across the region.28 Religious practice is now only the domain of a very
small number of elderly, protected individuals. Religious and ethnic minority
language texts, that are not translations from Chinese, have been banned in
large part.29 As such, the future of Uyghur society itself is called into question.
While there is likely some ways in which similar dynamics can and have
been applied to other disfavored populations in Eastern China—such as the
Falun Gong, evangelical Christians, labor rights advocates and democracy
protesters—it is really only in other frontier settings that it is likely that simi-
lar surveillance systems may be instituted. In such locations, namely Tibet and
Hong Kong, where Chinese state sovereignty is called into question, it is more
likely that state power seepage can move through surveillance platforms into
the most intimate spaces of daily life and the social institutions that sustain
difference in those locations. Already in Hong Kong, significant capture of
basic institutions by Chinese state power has occurred.30 Even before the new
National Security Law was announced key nodes of Hong Kong society—the
police, the media, the education system, civil service sector, and election sys-
tems—had entered into a phase of transformation shaped by Chinese finan-
cial and legal power. Yet, because these institutions lack some of the key ele-
ments at work in Xinjiang—police assistants, neighborhood watch units, and,
most importantly a settler population in nearly all positions of power—there
are likely yet many obstacles to implementing systems like those in Xinjiang.
That said the implementation of the National Security Law could foster a sim-
ilar scaling-up and intensification of human surveillance in a manner similar
to the effects of the 2016 counter-terrorism laws in Xinjiang.

International Transfer
There are even further obstacles to producing Xinjiang effects in international
locations. As the Mobile Police System dataset demonstrates, human labor,
ideological commitment and extrajudicial detention are essential elements of

Darren Byler

the Xinjiang system. Absent any of these three elements, safe city systems in
other locations will not produce the same types of effects.
Preliminary research I have begun to conduct in the Malaysian capital of
Kuala Lumpur shows that pilot surveillance projects with similar capacities,
even built by the same companies and, to some extent, targeting the same
people, produce differential effects. Since 2018 Malaysian authorities have
pursued a strategy that they refer to as “total security.”31 This approach targets
not only the Malay majority which they fear may be influenced by global po-
litical movements, but also the population of more than 150,000 refugees who
inhabit marginalized areas of the city. This population of refugees is primarily
made up of Rohingya, but also include small numbers of Uyghurs who fled
China and joined Rohingya forced migration routes. Because some of these
refugees have been unable to authenticate their status as refugees, and because
refugee status is not formally recognized in Malaysian statutes, many of this
population are forced to live as undocumented immigrants.
As urban authorities in Kuala Lumpur began to ramp up urban security,
they hired a small auxiliary police force—workers positioned very similarly to
the police assistants used in Ürümchi—to monitor mosques and other high
traffic areas. The police assistants wear face-recognition enabled body cameras
manufactured by the Chinese firm Yitu.32 These cameras compare faces to a
vast database of over one billion face images hosted by Yitu—the company
which provided the algorithm used by the Chinese surveillance manufacturer
Dahua and is used in Safe City systems across Xinjiang.
Yet as similar as these systems appear to be, there are some marked dif-
ferences in effects. While in Xinjiang these systems are used to observe the
daily life of Muslims who remain outside of detention. The research of Shae
Frydenlund shows that in Malaysia they largely have the effect of marking
certain spaces of the city off limits to undocumented refugees.33 In this sense
they mimic the effects of surveillance systems in the U.S. and Europe which
push undocumented immigrants into gray zones, at the margins of cities and
into low wage work. That is to say, in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese surveillance
systems produce forms of banishment and structural violence, but unlike in
Xinjiang they do not colonize immigrant institutions or begin to transform
their knowledge system in an intentional or overt manner. In Xinjiang, the
goal of the surveillance system is to include the minoritized population in

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

order to monitor them, rather than exclude them by pushing them out of pub-
lic view. Part of what produces this difference is ideological difference vis-à-vis
the Xinjiang situation. In Kuala Lumpur, the intention of the system appears
to be not to transform, but to halt the circulation of individuals and ideas
deemed harmful while reducing friction for protected individuals and ideas.
In this sense, the Kuala Lumpur system resembles policing intentions that
were in place in Xinjiang prior to 2014 and the People’s War on Terror. And,
as Ananya Roy and Brian Jefferson have shown, mirrors the effects of surveil-
lance systems in many global North locations.34
The citizen versus enemy border logics inherent in technology-led safe city
policing create differential effects that disproportionately harm unprotected
populations.35 In many locations which deploy such systems urban policing
is defined by statistical measurement of racialized populations. Since the late
1990s police departments across the world have begun to generate their own
statistics and work in direct partnership with leading technology companies
to quantify and assess the communities they police.36 In doing so, police, asso-
ciated government agencies and technologists have taken the lead in defining
the priorities of urban governance. Things that lend an appearance of disor-
der—for example the broken windows in racial minority neighborhoods—be-
come predictors of crime itself.37 This shift has led in some cases to a diminish-
ment in community-led policing and in others a continuation of racialized
policing. The “objective science” framing of technological assessments works
to hide the way biases around which the systems are designed. As a result large
segments of citizen and non-citizen populations are presumed likely to com-
mit crimes primarily because of the ethno-racial and religious identities. In
order to produce greater equity and mitigate these harms, regulations and
surveillance systems should be crafted or designed from the vantage point of
those targeted by these systems.
Another effect of surveillance systems built by Xinjiang-related companies
in international locations is a truncating of democratic politics. Investigations
of Huawei-built systems in Ecuador, Uganda, and Zambia, show that in each
case surveillance systems were used by those in power to harm or immobilize
political opponents.38 While the ostensible purpose of these systems was to
build intelligence on drug trafficking or other criminal activity, Huawei service
providers also helped local regimes to develop domestic spying systems. Over

Darren Byler

36 countries have also received public opinion guidance training from Chinese
authorities connected to the Public Security Bureau and Civil Ministry as
part of a “Digital New Silk Road” initiative.39 Here, as the Xinjiang case dem-
onstrates, in the joining of civil service with policing, is where capacities for
gaining institutional control and targeting particular disfavored populations is
most possible. Yet, the Xinjiang case, also demonstrates that large amounts of
human intelligence—low level workers ideologically committed to state goals
and focused nearly exclusively on controlling targeted populations—is neces-
sary in order to achieve something on the order of the Xinjiang campaign. In
general, however, absent robust civil liberties and privacy protections, complex
surveillance systems have the capacities to produce tremendous harms, particu-
larly for minoritized, targeted populations, even as they do not rise to the level
of crimes against humanity which are present in Xinjiang.
In the era of COVID-19, Xinjiang-related companies have also begun to
sell contact tracing products to international buyers. These buyers range from
companies like Amazon and IBM in the United States and the Bournemouth
Airport in the United Kingdom to locations in South Korea and Dubai.40 In
Ecuador, an auxiliary Huawei system that is related to the system used for
policing and to track political opponents is now being used to monitor the
spread of the pandemic.41 While there is a clear public health benefit to such
systems, it is important that entities which use such systems develop plans
to mitigate the potential harms of biometric tracing.42 Recent reports from
Singapore indicate that such data can now be used by police—exactly the type
of slippage in civil protections that should be mitigated.43 Buyers of technol-
ogy from Xinjiang related firms should also consider their moral culpability in
buying systems that were trained in part in Xinjiang.

Policy Recommendations
The Xinjiang case demonstrates that surveillance infrastructure-led policing
amplifies existing power dynamics. The distancing and “black-box” effects of
advanced technological systems extends capacities for power over life and,
counter-intuitively, often diminishes context and community specific capac-
ity of law enforcement. While it has the potential to hold police accountable
by providing evidence of police overreach, in most contexts it appears that in

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

the absence of regulation the harms to targeted communities are amplified by

such systems. As a result, such systems must be accompanied by regulation
that limit the use of biometric and digital surveillance to specific domains
and purposes. As a limit case of the harms caused by advanced computer vi-
sion and digital forensics technologies the Xinjiang case demands that poli-
cymakers and technologists reexamine basic practices of technology design
and deployment.

● In order to mitigate harmful effects of policing on marginalized

populations, policymakers should advocate for community-led policing
reform. Such reforms should include community guidance on the use and
regulation of surveillance. It should end quota-driven intelligence seeking
and reverse discrimination toward individuals and groups based on racial
ascription, ethnic affiliation, and religious practice.

● In the longer-term the United States should work with partner nations
to develop a global body to regulate harmful forms of surveillance on a
company and country neutral basis.

● The Global Partnership on AI (GPAI) and other multilateral

organization should work with international government agencies
to develop initiatives to develop democratically-driven technology
alternatives designed to mitigate harms to unprotected populations. They
should actively invest and build such systems in spaces like Hong Kong
and along the BRI.

● At a more strategic and short-term scale, U.S. companies should not

actively and knowingly support and supply companies involved in
Xinjiang surveillance. The U.S. government and industry assessment
organizations should require supply chain transparency when working
with law enforcement agencies in China.

● U.S. policymakers should strive to create targeted assessments and

regulation of Chinese firms which build tools to automate racialization
and harm to minorities. If sanctions of such Chinese technology firms are

Darren Byler

put in place, U.S. authorities should present detailed, unclassified reports

explicating the reasons for such actions.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

1. See Darren Byler, “The Global Implications of “Re-education” Technologies in Northwest
China,” Center for Global Policy,
2. As of 2019 there were 15 companies that have been named “national level AI champions”
by Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. These include: Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei,
HikVision, iFLYTEK,, Megvii, MiningLamp, Qihoo, Ping An Insurance, TAL
Education, Tencent, SenseTime, Xiaomi, YITU. See “The Ministry of Science and Technology
Expands the List of ‘AI National Team,’ Ten New Companies are Selected,” Network
Consolidation, August 30, 2019, Of
these 15 companies, HikVision, iFLYTEK, Megvii, Sensetime and YITU have been found
to be complicit in human rights abuses in the Uyghur region by the U.S. Department of
3. See Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Dealing with Demand for China’s Global
Surveillance Exports.”
4. It appears as though earlier generations of this information management system were used in
locations in Eastern China, however 2009 marks the first entrance of mobile policing systems
in the Xinjiang region. Wang Kaixue, “3G (the third generation telecommunication)-based
mobile police affairs application system,” Google Patents, 2010,
5. “xinjiang 20 tai yidong jingwutong shanggang xinxi dangchang chaxun [Inquiry regarding
information on the jobs in 20 mobile police stations in Xinjiang],”, July 7, 2010,
6. “Wulumuqishi gonganju shoufa“jingwutong [Mobile Policing System Issued first by the
Urumqi Public Security Bureau],”, June 28, 2013,
7. “Hezhong sizhuang xiang xinjiang tigong 2 wan taibeidou jingwu shouchi zhongduan
[UniStrong provides 20,000 hand-held Taibeidou terminals to police in Xinjiang],” tianji.
com, August 23, 2013,; “xinjiang emin wei jiceng minjing peifa 89
bu yidong jingwutong [Xinjiang Emin County issues 89 mobile police services to grassroots
police], Xinjiang Ministry of Public Security, January 14, 2016,
8. “xinjiang wulumuqi zhineng pingban yidong jingwutong ICR-007 [Xinjiang Urumqi Smart
Tablet Mobile Police ICR-007],” Chinasoft Hi-Tech, October 28, 2016,
JdOwQ; It appears that as of 2020 the newest version of each mobile unit costs approximately

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

4,100 renminbi. “Wulumuqi gaoxinqu (xinshiqu) gongan fenju jingwutong caigou

xiang mugong kaizhao biao gonggao [Public Bidding Announcement for the Police Pass
Procurement Project of the Public Security Sub-bureau of Urumqi’s High-tech Zone (New
Urban Area)],” China Public Security Police Bidding Network, December 24, 2020, https://
9. “Xinjiang shoubu weihan shuangyu 4G zhineng shouji shangshi [Xinjiang’s first Uyghur-Chinese
bilingual 4G smartphone launched],” CCTV, January 17, 2017,
10. Human Rights Watch, “China’s Algorithms of Repression Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang
Police Mass Surveillance App,” Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2019,
11. Darren Byler, “The Xinjiang Data Police,” Noema Magazine, October 8, 2020, https://www.
12. “Responses of the Government of China on follow-up to the concluding observations of the
United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” United Nations
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,
October 8, 2019: 2–3.–17
13. “Glossary,” Xinjiang Documentation Project, ND, University of British Columbia, https://
14. Darren Byler, “The Xinjiang Data Police,” Noema Magazine, October 8, 2020, https://www.
15. James Leibold and Adrian Zenz, “Beijing’s Eyes and Ears Grow Sharper in Xinjiang, The 24-7
Patrols of China’s ‘Convenience Police,’” Foreign Affairs, December 23, 2016, https://www.
16. “2018 nian xinjiang kasha diqu zhaopin xian pinshi yebian zhibian min jingwuzhan gongzuo
renyuan zhaopin jianzhang [2018 Recruitment Guide for Staff Recruitment of People’s
Convenience Police Stations in Xinjiang Kashgar Region],” Jiashi County Public Security
Bureau, December 19, 2018
17. Zhang Xinde, “Wulumuqi shi dajie xiao xiang jiang jian 949 ge bianmin jingwuzhan [949
People’s Convenience Police Stations have been built in the streets of Ürümchi],” Yaxin Net,
18. “Xi urges anti-terrorism ‘nets’ for Xinjiang,” Xinhua News, May 29, 2014, http://www.
19. Darren Byler, “Keyword: fangbian (convenience),” ChinaMade, August 2, 2019, University of
20. Darren Byler, “The Xinjiang Data Police,” Noema Magazine, October 8, 2020, https://www.
21. Chinese Government Procurement Network, “Xinjiang Shawan County Smart
(Safe) Project Feasibility Study, ” 2017,
22. Darren Byler, “The Xinjiang Data Police,” Noema Magazine, October 8, 2020, https://www.
23. James Derleth and Daniel R. Koldyk. “The Shequ Experiment: Grassroots Political Reform in
Urban China.” Journal of Contemporary China 13:41 (2004): 747–777.

Darren Byler

24. This confirms prior investigative reporting. See Megha Rajgopalan, “China Is Forcing People
To Download An App That Tells Them To Delete ‘Dangerous’ Photos,” Buzzfeed, April 9,
25. For more on this see Gene Bunin, “How the Happiest Muslims in the World are Coping
with Their Happiness,” Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia (blog), July 31, 2018, https://
26. Jennifer Pan, Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers,
(Oxford University Press, 2020).
27. Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg “State of Surveillance,” Chinafile, October 30, 2020,
28. Sigal Samuel, “China’s genocide against the Uyghurs, in 4 disturbing charts”
Vox, March 10, 2021,
29. Darren Byler, “‘Only When You, Your Children, And Your Grandchildren Become
Chinese’: Life After Xinjiang Detainment,” SupChina, January 6, 2021, https://supchina.
30. Darren Byler, “Infrastructural Power, Hong Kong, And Global China,” ChinaMade, Brief #6
(October 2020),
31. Shae A.C. Frydenlund, “Support From The South: How Refugee Labor Reproduces Cities,”
(Doctoral Dissertation) University of Colorado (2020): 118.
32. Li Tao, “Malaysian Police Wear Chinese Start-Up’s AI Camera To Identify Suspected
Criminals,” South China Morning Post, April 20, 2018,
33. Shae A.C. Frydenlund, “Support from the South.”
34. See Ananya Roy, “Racial Banishment,” In Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50,
2020; and Brian Jefferson, Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age,
(Minneapolist: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
35. Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, The Rise of Big Data Policing, (New York: New York University
Press, 2017).
36. Mark H. Moore and Margaret Poethig, Measuring What Matters: Crime, Disorder, And
Fear. In Measuring What Matters: Proceedings from The Policing Research Institute Meetings,
1999, National Institute of Justice Washington, DC; Joshua Scannell, “This Is Not Minority
Report: Predictive Policing And Population Racism,” in Captivating Technology: Race,
Carceral Technoscience, And Liberatory Imagination In Everyday Life, ed. by Ruha Benjamin,
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2019): 107–129. Brian Jefferson, Digitize and Punish: Racial
Criminalization in the Digital Age, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
37. Jeffrey T. Martin, Sentiment, Reason, and Law: Policing In the Republic of China on Taiwan,
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019); Anouk De Koning, “‘Handled with Care’: Diffuse
Policing And The Production Of Inequality in Amsterdam,” Ethnography 18:4 (2017): 535–555.
38. Paul Mozur, Jonah M. Kessel and Melissa Chan, “Made in China, Exported to the World: The
Surveillance State,” New York Times, April 24, 2019,
technology/ecuador-surveillance-cameras-police-government.html; Joe Parkinson,
Nicholas Bariyo and Josh Chin, “Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments Spy on

Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk Road

Political Opponents,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2019,

39. Adrian Shahbaz, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” Freedom House 2018, https://
40. Darren Byler, “Why are U.S. Companies Buying Tech From Chinese
Firms that Spy on Muslims?” The Guardian, August 31, 2020,
41. Elena Chuquimarca, “Huawei Auxiliary Systems Help Detect COVID-19 in Ecuador,” Xinhua,
April 30, 2020,
42. Aidan Powers-Riggs, “COVID-19 is Proving a Boon for Digital Authoritarianism,”
CSIS, August 17, 2020,
proving-boon-digital-authoritarianism; DIGITAL Lydia Khalil, “Authoritarianism,
China And COVID,” Lowy Institute, November 2, 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.
org/publications/digital-authoritarianism-china-and-covid#sec43786; Samuel
Woodhams, “COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker,”, January 27, 2021,;
“Dahua Thermal Solution Assists COVID-19 Prevention And Control,” International
Security Journal, January 24, 2021,
43. Laurel Wamsley, “Singapore Says COVID-19 Contact-Tracing Data Can
Be Requested By Police,” National Public Radio, January 5, 2021, https://


Lop Nur and the U.S.

Intelligence Gaze: Evaluating
the U.S. Intelligence Process
During China’s Nuclearization

Sara B. Castro is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and

an Assistant Professor of History at the U.S. Air Force
Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.
Sara B. Castro

U.S. intelligence assessments in the 1950s and early 1960s established a pat-
tern of underestimating Chinese nuclear development capabilities and over-
estimating U.S. intelligence capabilities. Declassified U.S. intelligence assess-
ments of China’s nuclear weapons development from the 1950s and 1960s
convey a somewhat contradictory message. On one hand, the reports univer-
sally begin with recognition that the U.S. intelligence community lacks nec-
essary intelligence collection on the issue of China’s nuclearization. On the
other hand, the reports also tend to provide estimates of China’s progress that,
in retrospect, were ultimately overly dismissive and conservative, compared
with records released in later decades that document when China reached the
nuclear milestones in question.
To their credit, U.S. intelligence officials admitted, and even emphasized
in reports to their policymaker audience, that they did not know enough
about China’s plans, intentions, or progress on nuclear issues. However, the
absence of useful details from collection efforts to share and the constant
questions from policymakers opened the floor for speculative analysis that,
reviewed today, reveals important patterns of misconceptions and bias. China
did achieve a nuclear weapons program, with not as much Soviet aid as the
United States thought they would require. The risk of “othering” China in as-
sessments or approaching negotiations with an attitude of superiority has not
vanished over the years that the United States has pursued a policy of engage-
ment with China. Analytic traps in the 1950s and 1960s and the effect they
had on the U.S. government’s understanding of China’s nuclear arms devel-
opment thus offer an important cautionary tale today. Policymakers, public
intellectuals and government officials in the United States who follow China
closely and have become aware of the bias trap that exists in underestimating
Chinese capability have an obligation to raise the level of discourse and im-
prove diplomacy.

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

Policy Recommendations:
● The start of the new U.S. presidential administration is an important
point of inflection where U.S. stakeholders can reinforce problematic
past behaviors and biases in the relationship with China or seek to
correct them.

● The Biden administration and U.S. industries that do extensive business

with China should seek Americans with expertise on China’s history,
politics, and culture.

● U.S. government programs that enable Americans to learn more about China
and to interact with Chinese people should be improved and amplified.

● The U.S. government should widely recognize and provide effective

warnings and education to the public about counterintelligence concerns
from China where they exist.

● The U.S. government should partner with technology and business

leaders to provide global leadership on issues of technology governance to
counter China’s global advancement in this area.

Sara B. Castro

“Bigness has the difficulties of being big.” Mao Zedong, quoting Wang
Xifeng from Dream of the Red Chamber in reference to the United
States and USSR in September 1963.1

On October 16, 1964, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated suc-
cessfully detonating its first nuclear device at the remote Lop Nur test site in
Xinjiang.2 The bomb used uranium-235 that Chinese scientists had mined
and enriched within China to trigger a fission implosion, yielding a 20-kilo-
ton explosive reaction.3 With this successful explosion, China entered into the
small group of countries with nuclear weapons capabilities. After that first test,
China conducted another 44 tests prior to 1992 when it acceded to the Nuclear
Proliferation Treaty.4 China today possesses a nuclear arsenal that includes a
variety of delivery systems and nuclear payloads, and it maintains the “no-first
use” policy with the weapons that it adopted as soon as it had the first one.
By 1964, U.S. government officials knew that China was pursuing nuclear
technology for both energy production and weapons development, and they
anticipated that a nuclear bomb test could happen at any time. However,
China’s methods for developing this successful bomb contradicted the most
important assumptions U.S. intelligence analysis had made, even with the
benefit of expensive overhead imagery for intelligence. China’s first test of a
thermonuclear weapon in 1967 also came slightly earlier than most U.S. in-
telligence predictions, and U.S. intelligence agencies were surprised again a
few decades later when PRC leaders acquired cutting-edge and secret U.S.-
designed nuclear technology, presumably through successful espionage.5
Across agencies, U.S. intelligence officers lacked the intelligence they wanted
on China but made assumptions anyway about how China’s nuclear weap-
ons program would evolve. A few of the assumptions were accurate, but a
pattern emerges in which U.S. intelligence agencies frequently assume China
will make less progress on its developmental goals than it eventually does. In
the case of early nuclear weapons testing, mistaken assumptions steered U.S.
intelligence officials away from exploring or communicating the alternative
paths that China’s nuclear scientists ultimately followed. Declassified U.S.
intelligence assessments convey an intrinsic sense of doubt that China could
become capable in the nuclear arena during the early Cold War, and certainly

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

not without substantial assistance from foreign countries such as the Soviet
Union. This underlying tone is a distinguishing factor between U.S. intelli-
gence assessments on China and similar analysis that policymakers requested
at the same time on other countries pursuing indigenously developed nuclear
arms, such as India, France, and Israel, even though China’s nuclear weapons
came online faster than the arsenals of those other nations.
China’s nuclearization is well trodden turf for historians. The substantial
documentary evidence has enabled scholars to create detailed, but largely sepa-
rate, chronologies of the historical milestones in China’s nuclear weapons pro-
gram and the process in the United States of recognizing and responding to
these milestones. The solid foundation of scholarship on these matters makes
it possible to give the materials a fresh look and ask what does this flawed U.S.
intelligence record reveal about U.S. attitudes toward China. The tendency
for U.S. intelligence assessments to simultaneously underestimate Chinese ca-
pabilities and overestimate U.S. capabilities exposes a historical cultural bias
toward paternalism on the U.S. part that is worth recognizing and consider-
ing, particularly as bilateral relations become increasingly tense and issues of
technology governance come to the forefront of the international dialogue.
This comparative analysis begins with analysis of China’s initial nuclear
strategy and the challenges Chinese leaders faced in achieving goals. Next,
this article explains structural factors about the U.S. intelligence community
in the 1950s and 1960s that made answering policymaker questions about
China’s nuclearization a formidable puzzle for U.S. intelligence analysts at
that time. Third, a review of selected U.S. intelligence assessments measured
against records of China’s nuclear program reveals a web of specific flawed as-
sumptions in U.S. intelligence collection and analysis on China’s nucleariza-
tion. Reflection on these flawed assumptions and the deeper biases that facili-
tated them yields implications that policymakers today may find relevant to
U.S.-China relations, public diplomacy, and broader questions of U.S. grand
strategy as a new presidential administration begins. The U.S. intelligence
community is not the audience that really needs this cautionary tale today;
it has recognized and resolved many flawed intelligence processes through
decades of continuous intelligence reforms. Rather, the case of bias in early
American intelligence estimates on Chinese nuclearization has important les-
sons for the increasingly diverse array of Americans who are new stakeholders

Sara B. Castro

in U.S.-China relations. Vulnerability to cognitive traps and biases similar to

those that allowed U.S. intelligence officials in the 1950s and 1960s to under-
estimate China and assume the ubiquitous superiority of the United States
could imperil the efficacy of near-term U.S. foreign policy and continuity of
global leadership.

China’s Nuclear Moonshot

To be sure, China’s plans for nuclearization in the 1950s were a moonshot,
and Chinese leaders were under no illusions about this fact. The PRC had for-
mally started its nuclear weapons program as early as January 1955 when Mao
Zedong gave his initial approval for Chinese scientists to pursue the project
during a secret meeting.6 Less than ten years elapsed between the meeting and
the first successful detonation at the remote Lop Nur test site the PRC en-
gineers created from scratch in Xinjiang. In between those bookend events,
China had to develop or acquire not only the plans for the bomb, but also
the materials to construct it and systems for testing it.7 Chinese scientists had
support from the Soviet Union in the earliest years of their efforts to develop
nuclear energy and weapons, but this relationship became strained in the late
1950s and ended by 1960, before the Soviets delivered promised support.8
For most of China’s early nuclear weapons program, producing the materi-
als required Chinese scientists and engineers to independently scout proper
locations that had the necessary resources, were sufficiently remote for safety
when necessary, and were sufficiently obscure to evade detection by other
states’ increasingly sophisticated intelligence.9 All this work had to be com-
pleted under a veil of secrecy, even though China’s top leaders were publicly
announcing their intentions in diplomatic venues, contributing to the vulner-
ability of Chinese efforts to diplomatic responses and, potentially, covert ac-
tions from other countries that could impede or end the programs. 10
Furthermore, while the PRC leaders were pursuing their nuclear weapons
project full throttle, various other destabilizing domestic and international
developments occurred, any of which could have derailed the progress. Mao
Zedong launched a series of mass campaigns designed to consolidate the
CCP’s legitimacy and accelerate China’s industrial productive capacity. The
combination of drastic changes to economic policy and the distraction that

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

the mass political campaigns imposed on the population led to the brutal
period 1958 to 1962 known as the Great Famine, leading to as many as 36
million deaths by starvation.11 Other destructive mass political campaigns, in-
cluding the Cultural Revolution, followed in the 1960s and early 1970s, when
China was testing thermonuclear weapons and a variety of delivery systems.12
Simmering disputes over border issues became direct or proxy military con-
flict or threatened to do so at several times in the PRC’s first several decades,
and Taiwan was a potential flashpoint then as it is now. CCP leaders had
many opportunities to become diverted away from their progress to nuclear
state in the 1960s and 1970s.
The fact that Chinese leaders consistently continued the nuclear weapons
program despite these real obstacles, and ultimately succeeded, is a testament
to how much importance CCP leaders placed on acquiring nuclear weapons.
Mao Zedong, in particular, was convinced that to deter existing nuclear pow-
ers, China must develop its own nuclear arsenal. Mao’s writings and speeches
into the 1960s reveal an obsession with developing nuclear weapons for their
deterrent capabilities. Scholar M. Taylor Fravel has demonstrated that a new
military strategy introduced in 1956 assumed that China needed to prepare
for its most likely threat to come from “a surprise attack by a technologically
and materially stronger adversary: the United States.”13 Mao calculated that
this attack would be less likely to come, especially in the form of a nuclear at-
tack, if foreign adversaries expected a nuclear response from China. “Not only
are we going to have more airplanes and artillery, but also the atomic bomb.
In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing,”
Mao told an enlarged meeting of the CCP Politburo in April 1956.14 Delaying
or eliminating the potential for such aggression toward China would buy the
PRC time to industrialize, modernize its military to address its regional se-
curity goals, and reach out to nations in Africa and southeast Asia likely to
support the anti-imperialist tenets of its foreign policy.
In the April 1956 Politburo session, Mao was not only trying to garner sup-
port for developing nuclear weapons but also to persuade military leaders to
economize so that more resources can go toward nuclearization.15 Fravel de-
scribes Mao’s nuclear strategy as separate from but parallel to developments
in Chinese military strategy in the mid-1950s. Mao’s comments about foreign
policy and strategy in the 1950s and 1960s suggest that he viewed having a

Sara B. Castro

retaliatory capability for a nuclear first strike to be as a basic requirement for

all of the other changes that he intended to make to improve China’s posi-
tion. The reasoning was that without a nuclear deterrent capability, China
would live in fear of a first-strike attack and that would affect its geopolitical
power. Moreover, military invasion or the threat of it from opponents might
distract China and its resources away from its other goals of industrialization,
economic growth, and building an alternative to the imperialism of past geo-
political powers. It is noteworthy that while China’s nuclear strategy has often
been consistent with its military strategy, the two are separate. PRC military
leaders have no control over the nuclear strategy, which has been the domain
of the top political leaders since Mao started the nuclear weapons program.16
Fravel assesses that since Mao, the party’s nuclear use policy has changed little,
and the nuclear arms program has consistently focused on “assured retalia-
tion” rather than offensive or first use.17
The U.S. intelligence community correctly assessed that developing an
indigenous nuclear arms capability would be difficult for China, but U.S.
intelligence analysts seemingly failed to appreciate in their assessments that
the PRC’s grand strategy could lead to a level of commitment to the nuclear-
ization project that might overcome the formidable obstacles. For example, a
National Intelligence Estimate was released in 1958, not long after China’s
leaders internally announced its new military strategy and Mao’s nuclear deci-
sions proceeded behind closed doors. The report conveyed U.S. intelligence
assessments on China with a five-year time horizon. It anticipated the change
in military strategy (though does not articulate it directly), but it dismissed
the potential for nuclear achievements:

“Although Communist China will almost certainly not have developed

a missile or nuclear weapons production capability of its own by 1962
because of the continuing shortage of technicians and the demands of
other military and economic programs upon its limited resources, we
believe that the Chinese Communists will press the USSR for such
advanced weapons.”18

By 1962, China was developing a production capability for nuclear weap-

ons, including a complete supply chain, without Soviet assistance (the Soviets

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

split from their alliance with China in 1959). Why did U.S. intelligence ana-
lysts fail to convey to their U.S. policymaker audience a deeper understanding
of China’s leaders’ intentions, capabilities and commitment to nuclear strat-
egy at the beginning of China’s nuclear arms development process? Multiple
factors together caused U.S. intelligence and U.S. policymakers to regularly
underestimate PRC technical capabilities and the commitment of Chinese
leaders to continue developing its capabilities as a fundamental strategic
choice. This perception cropped back up sporadically in U.S. intelligence on
China throughout the Cold War years and has even been hard for policymak-
ers to shake through the normalization of diplomatic relations.

Chinese Nuclearization Challenged

Early U.S. Intelligence Agencies
When CIA analysts assessed the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s
and 1960s, the practice of all-source intelligence analysis was still fairly new
within the U.S. government. Several factors at the time made early assess-
ments on China particularly vulnerable to biases and flawed takes. First, in-
telligence analysis is a process that contains intrinsic susceptibility to error
and bias. Intelligence analysts build a mosaic of information to answer ques-
tions of national interest where the greatest uncertainty exists. As bits of in-
formation emerge, analysts assess them, weighing new details with existing
evidence and prior expectations. All of it comes together to build a corporate
response to policymaker questions, conveying information, assumptions and
the level of confidence in those assumptions. A constant process of identi-
fying and questioning the assumptions that support assessments is crucial.
Intelligence analysts never have all the information they need (or they would
be more like journalists), but they must attempt to answer policymaker ques-
tions anyway, given the stakes of national security. Without yet having a
professionalized methodology, early U.S. intelligence assessments often suc-
cumbed to bias-induced errors or misled readers about the level of confidence
behind assessments.
Furthermore, the People’s Republic of China was a denied area for
Americans. Intelligence on the PRC had to be collected obliquely, via other
countries that had contact with China, through Hong Kong or Taiwan,

Sara B. Castro

through reading between the lines of China’s party-controlled media or public

statements of leaders, and through brand-new forms of technical and overhead
surveillance. Intelligence collection through these means required careful tar-
geting to be accurate and could take a long time to return results. Intelligence
collection often yielded unsatisfying results and significant knowledge gaps.
Absent sufficient information coming from the field, analysts and poli-
cymakers facing questions on “Communist China,” as they called the PRC
to distinguish it from Taiwan, acted upon unflattering cultural and ethnic
generalizations about China. A vocal segment of American public intellectu-
als in the 1950s and 1960s had no direct experience of China and saw the
Chinese Communists in profoundly orientalist tropes, as a mysterious, irra-
tional, unenlightened horde that had been seduced by Lenin and Stalin into
following the wrong sort of Western philosophical and economic principles.
These prejudices were not universal, but they were pervasive, recalcitrant, and
very damaging for U.S. officials who were assessing China’s capabilities. The
views are implicitly evident in the intelligence reporting itself and in the as-
sumptions that analysts made about China’s potential for developing nuclear
weapons. The collective and simplistic dismissal of communist ideology
within the United States further distorted U.S. assessments of China. To be
sure, the mass movements Mao led in the 1950s to introduce his version of
a modern era to the Chinese public were destructive, violent, and regressive,
as Josef Stalin’s movements had been. However, the history of the People’s
Republic—like all history—is a complicated patchwork of successes and fail-
ures. American policymakers generally struggled to find a mental harbor in
which they could appreciate this complexity for China in the early Cold War,
even as a first wave of skilled and prescient American scholars argued for it.19
Third, compounding the significant intelligence gaps and the orientalist
tinge pervading the U.S. government, few experts who could discharge un-
favorable cultural biases about the PRC remained in government positions
when China’s started its drive for nuclear arms. Many public servants with
the greatest expertise in China after the 1940s, including the few who had
met the Chinese communist leaders, had been eliminated from the govern-
ment by the machinations of the powerful China Lobby and Senator Joseph
McCarthy by the early 1950s. Others had voluntarily left under the threat
of loyalty hearings. Some of the fired bureaucrats, such as Foreign Service

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

Officer John Service, pressed their issue in the courts throughout the 1950s
(the Supreme Court ultimately vindicated Service in 1957).20 By the time
President Kennedy took office in 1960s, the State Department only employed
two “China-language experts in the Foreign Service with pre-Second-World-
War experience in their field who still had anything to do with China,” ac-
cording to journalist E. J. Kahn, Jr.21 U.S. intelligence officers who expressed
sympathy, charity, admiration or positive recognition for China’s Communist
leaders also likely perceived at least some professional vulnerability through-
out the 1950s and 1960s.
Finally, debates that occurred at the creation of the modern U.S. national
security regime in the late 1940s and the compromises that resolved them help
explain some blind spots for U.S. intelligence officers investigating China’s
nuclear arms development. President Truman’s intention to expand peacetime
U.S. intelligence generated domestic controversy. The practical intelligence re-
quirements global leadership competed with some policymakers’ perceptions
of the appropriate comportment of a state that claimed moral exceptional-
ism.22 The National Security Act of 1947 and other subsequent policies and
norms ultimately established a figurative wall between law enforcement func-
tions and national security functions. However, some policymakers deeply op-
posed the CIA’s “dirty tricks.”
Preference for sanitizing American intelligence work resulted in a clear
policymaker consensus favoriting technical means of intelligence collection,
such as satellites and surveillance aircraft that would facilitate collecting in-
telligence imagery, signals intelligence, and other scientific samples, such as
atmospheric chemicals. Consistent with what some scholars have called “tech-
nophilia” that overtook policymakers in the postwar era, influential voices in
U.S. intelligence argued in the 1950s and 1960s that “techint” tools gathered
data that was more precise and could lead to more confident analytical assess-
ments.23 The act of developing and deploying the sophisticated tools was ex-
pensive and required the best minds in science and engineering, meaning that
having these capabilities also gave the United States a chance to flaunt wealth
and talent. The case of analysis on China’s first nuclear weapons tests makes
an ironic argument against this prioritization of one form of intelligence over
another, as will be shown in specific examples below.

Sara B. Castro

Underestimates, Overestimates, and

the Harm of Flawed Assumptions
China’s nuclear program was indeed challenging for Chinese leaders and sci-
entists to implement, but China achieved the required milestones anyway, in a
comparatively reasonable amount of time, and without the foreign assistance
that the U.S. intelligence estimates anticipated. Moreover, China almost al-
ways reached its nuclear arms development milestones either on the schedule
the U.S. intelligence agencies estimated or in advance of estimates, and often
using methods, tools, or locations that were not what U.S. intelligence agen-
cies had said they expected. U.S. intelligence estimates of China’s nucleariza-
tion up to at least 1964 paint a different picture. They emphasize two con-
clusions: 1) intelligence collection on the issue is woefully scarce, and 2) even
without intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community assumes with some
confidence that China will make slow progress or fail entirely.

● U.S. intelligence agencies sought answers to questions that would have

required robust intelligence collection to inform confident analysis. U.S.
policymakers wanted to know if/when China might be able to threaten
other countries or the United States with nuclear weapons. To answer
that standing requirement, intelligence agencies would have asked a series
of questions, such as:

● Would China develop a nuclear weapon? If so, when was the earliest time
China could threaten regional neighbors with a nuclear bomb? Or the
United States?

● What were China’s intentions and strategic goals for their nuclear
weapons program?

● To what extent was China relying on help from other countries, such as
the Soviet Union?

● How would China physically create its bomb? What materials would
Chinese scientists use?

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

● Where would they mine and manufacture the materials? Where would
tests occur?

Some of the most useful historical records to determine how U.S. intel-
ligence officials handled their tasks are declassified National Intelligence
Estimates (NIEs). NIEs map out the analytic view of the U.S. intelligence
community in general, and often with a much longer time horizon than other
intelligence art forms. NIEs are a product with a broad reach within the U.S.
government, and they become part of the historical record of the sense of the
U.S. intelligence community on a topic at any given point in time.24 NIEs
focused on China in the 1950s and 1960s, now declassified, demonstrate a
composite of what U.S. intelligence agencies assumed about China in the face
of significant intelligence and expertise gaps on the topic.
Early U.S. intelligence analysis on Chinese nuclear weapons development
recognizes and emphasizes significant gaps in collection on the issue. The
NIEs relating to Chinese nuclearization from the 1950s and 1960s typically
begin with a long disclaimer about the lack of intelligence information on the
issue. For example, in April 1962, the intelligence community published a top
secret NIE on Chinese Communist advanced weapons capabilities.25 The very
first line of the report states:

“In analyzing the evidence on Chinese programs for advanced weap-

ons, we have encountered numerous important gaps and inconsisten-
cies. The evidence available to us clearly proves the existence of pro-
grams in the missile and nuclear fields, but it is insufficient to permit
us to reconstruct these programs in the fashion which is possible for
various comparable Soviet programs.”26

Every other declassified intelligence report reviewed for this article con-
tains similar introductory language. For example, one NIE from December
1960 states, “our evidence with respect to Communist China’s nuclear
program is fragmentary as is our information about the nature and extent
of Soviet aid.” 27 These disclaimers may have intended to deflect account-
ability, but analysts were not always so aware of collection gaps or ready to
admit them.

Sara B. Castro

As early as 1955, U.S. intelligence agencies had determined that China’s

leaders were interested in a nuclear program, but they doubted it would
achieve any success. In one of the first U.S. intelligence assessments of China’s
nuclear ambitions that has been declassified, famous and respected CIA ana-
lyst Sherman Kent, after whom the current CIA analytic training school is
named, in June 1955 assessed that “China almost certainly would not develop
significant capabilities for the production of nuclear weapons within the next
10 years unless it were given substantial external assistance.”28 Kent’s analysis
conveys one of the most persistent and most damaging flawed assumptions
present in early U.S. intelligence assessments about Chinese nuclearization:
that China could only develop nuclear weapons with Soviet assistance.
This line of analysis was hardly a complete red herring. The Soviets did
have an agreement to support Chinese nuclear efforts in the 1950s, and the
existence and objectives of the Comintern were well known. However, little
evidence today suggests analysts were rigorously testing the assumption of
Soviet aid. Factors shaping early U.S. intelligence analysis mentioned earlier,
such as the scarcity of China experts that McCarthyism left in the federal gov-
ernment and an American norm for “othering” China, also likely reinforced
the resilience of the idea of Soviet aid to China in analysis until CIA received
sufficient evidence, much later, to convince analysts that the Sino-Soviet split
had occurred.29 The Soviets in China never actually passed the equipment
and plans China had requested, and most of China’s nuclear program is of
completely indigenous development.30 By 1962, overhead imagery of Chinese
nuclear sites verified that the Chinese had a nuclear program.31 Lacking suf-
ficient information from other corroborating sources to confidently estimate
how far along the programs were and crippled by biases about the techniques
China would use, analysts failed to interrogate their assessments. U.S. ana-
lysts’ conviction that China required Soviet help led them to several other
problematic core assumptions, driven by cognitive biases that are now easily
recognized by anyone who has studied international relations theory: mirror
imaging and confirmation bias.
Mirror imaging is a bias that occurs when an actor assumes that their op-
ponent will behave in the same way the original actor has in the past or how
the actor would behave under the circumstances. In this case, U.S. intelli-
gence agencies assumed that the PRC’s path to a nuclear arsenal would mirror

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

the steps that the United States and the Soviet Union took in terms of timing,
cost, facilities, and recognizable signatures that intelligence agencies could
collect. Indeed, on some of these factors, China did follow the precedents that
the United States and the Soviet Union had set because science required it. On
other key factors, however, the context of China’s unique situation ended up
skewing the milestones of China’s nuclear program away from the U.S. intelli-
gence estimates of timing, cost, and even technique. Cultural expertise related
to China and fluency with analytic tradecraft methods similar to those used
today, that routinely excavate and test core assumptions, might have prevented
this bias trap. As things were in the late 1950s, this initial bias encouraged an
extremely problematic analytic error and another damaging form of bias.
In terms of the error, because U.S. intelligence assessments in the late
1950s and early 1960s assumed both that China would require Soviet assis-
tance to make a nuclear weapon and that China’s path to a bomb would mir-
ror the steps that the Soviet Union and the United States took to make their
bombs, the assessments for years confidently expected China to produce their
first bomb with a plutonium warhead. At the time, it was well known among
nuclear scientists that either a plutonium warhead or a heavily enriched ura-
nium warhead could yield a nuclear bomb. Plutonium warheads had some ad-
vantages over enriched uranium in terms of cost and efficiency of production,
but plutonium-based nuclear warheads were more complicated to design and
create. Conversely, enriched uranium-235 was more difficult to acquire and
process, but the bomb itself was easier to produce.32 U.S. analysts expected
that Soviet aid to China in the nuclear field would be more likely to facili-
tate efficient plutonium production than to help the Chinese enrich sufficient
amounts of uranium.
The core assumption proved incorrect. By 1960, China had developed
plants for processing uranium into the required enriched form using facilities
for the gaseous diffusion process that Chinese scientists had independently
designed and built in the late 1950s.33 China exploded its first plutonium
bomb in December 1968, just over four years after its first uranium-235 bomb
and without Soviet aid.34
The erroneous assumption that China would first create a plutonium
bomb encouraged the development of a compounding problem in the U.S. in-
telligence collection: confirmation bias. U.S. intelligence assessments prior to

Sara B. Castro

China’s successful nuclear bomb test tended to evaluate the status of China’s
nuclear weapons program based on the fact that they sponsored overhead sur-
veillance imagery of China and had not discovered the signatures of pluto-
nium production facilities. In other words, emerging information (or in this
case, information not emerging) confirmed preceding beliefs. The U.S. gov-
ernment had high confidence in the pictures that returned from the newly
deployed CORONA satellites and U-2 planes that the United States arranged
for a team of Taiwanese pilots known as the Black Cats to use.35
These tools could acquire detailed aerial pictures of the otherwise denied
Chinese countryside. Indeed, the pictures that these expensive and cutting-
edge tools returned were remarkable. Most NIEs in the early 1960s included
as evidence examples of pictures from CORONA satellites, U-2 planes, and
other increasingly sophisticated tools for overhead surveillance.36 However,
aerial imagery requires targeting. If satellite operators or pilots know where to
point the camera, the result is a photograph that can reveal a great deal of in-
formation about a nuclear facility. With little other intelligence information
to aid in the targeting, finding a uranium facility in a space as large as China
was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. The availability of imagery in this
case encouraged confirmation bias and other analytic traps.
Relying on imagery with little corroboration also made U.S. intelligence
assessments vulnerable to Chinese counterintelligence efforts. From the earli-
est days of the nuclear program in China, CCP leaders emphasized secrecy.
CCP leaders and Chinese nuclear scientists worked together to locate facili-
ties in both the upstream and downstream production chain for nuclear weap-
ons that geography would help shelter from U.S. aerial imagery. China’s first
nuclear facilities were either nestled in cloud-covered locations in interior, re-
mote western locations, such as Xinjiang and Gansu, or hidden in suburbs
near Beijing.37 CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) had geographers
identify targets using scientific methods, but analytic biases led them to em-
phasize the search for plutonium. Plutonium installations would have had
different signatures than uranium tetrafluoride plants established to process
uranium-235. Locating the building sites in obscure locations was far from
the only effort the PRC leaders made at denial and deception to hide their
program. Indeed, the entire system for naming nuclear facilities and person-
nel components included a set of generic names and non-sequential numbers,

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

such as the uranium oxide production plant known simply as “Plant Number
2” near Beijing.38
Human intelligence reporting from a source with access to knowledge
about the Chinese nuclear program that U.S. intelligence officials believed to
be reliable could have been sufficient to challenge the firm assumption that
China’s first bomb attempt would use plutonium. No evidence in the cur-
rently declassified U.S. government intelligence assessments suggests that
such a source existed. William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson describe a report
from Chiang Kai-shek’s intelligence services shared with the CIA in 1963
that conveyed intelligence that the Chinese were operating a nuclear reactor at
Lanzhou to process uranium.39 Records now show that this report was prob-
ably accurate. At the time, CIA dismissed it, for reasons that are not currently
known to the public. The information contained in the report would have
challenged the U.S. assumption that China would pursue plutonium, which
they might have verified by different reviews of or targeting of imagery.
Initial flawed U.S. intelligence estimates about China’s nuclear ambitions
calcified into damaging biases just before the PRC’s first successful test in
1964. Despite false steps in estimating how China would get its bomb, U.S.
intelligence assessments had still estimated when the test would occur within
a reasonable margin of error. Intelligence analysts at the State Department’s
Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) such as Allen Whiting (who later
became a professor) and other nuclear science experts in the United States
had hinted to CIA in 1963 and 1964 that they should revisit their assump-
tion about China’s bomb being plutonium-based. However, Jeffrey Richelson
has shown that analysts in CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, which had
the responsibility of analyzing global nuclearization, stubbornly stood by
their focus on the plutonium.40 Even with the flawed assumption that China
planned a plutonium bomb still in place, the intelligence community had suf-
ficient intelligence about China’s nuclear test site at Lop Nor from imagery
intelligence to warn policymakers in August 1964 that the site could host a
nuclear test within two months, though analysts specified that they had low
confidence that China possessed the necessary fissionable material to con-
struct a bomb.41 It is fascinating to imagine that even looking at detailed pho-
tographs of a nuclear test facility prepped and ready for a bomb test did not
spur analysts to review and test their assumptions about China’s plans and

Sara B. Castro

c­apabilities. As intelligence agencies collected information on China’s test

after it happened, many of the mistakes in their estimates became clear. NIEs
after 1964 reflect more sophisticated analytic tradecraft and less consensus be-
tween U.S. intelligence agencies, but the tendency to underestimate Chinese
capabilities persisted.
The point of the analysis in this section is not to laud China for its nuclear
achievement or poke holes in the stumbles of early U.S. intelligence efforts.
Rather, the intention is to highlight the lack of self-awareness on the American
side about cultural and cognitive bias, to show an example where this lack of
awareness caused real harm, and to note that arrogance or paternalism on the
part of U.S. leaders and diplomats toward the PRC in this case was particu-
larly misguided and dangerous. U.S. intelligence analysis has changed since
1964, not just on China, but on global issues, as a result of learning from er-
rors. One does not get the sense, however, that U.S.-China relations has ab-
sorbed the lessons of the past.

Policy Implications
For far too long, the American public has taken an ostrich-approach toward
China, refusing to sufficiently recognize China’s strengths, particularly in the
face of fear of increasing authoritarianism in the People’s Republic. Examples
are easy to find in the tone of shock present in U.S. media coverage whenever
the Chinese government, military, or business sectors achieve a milestone.
Take, for example, the media shock and conspiracy theories that resulted from
the meticulously reported article in December 2020 that a Chinese spy had
targeted U.S. politicians including Rep. Eric Swalwell.42 In 2017, the establish-
ment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti generated the same re-
action.43 The pattern has repeated with press reports of China’s naval, missile,
and space achievements, such as those in the lunar exploration program China
started back in 2003. The global spread of COVID-19 in 2020 also unleashed
a stream of anti-China press coverage and political rhetoric suggesting that
prejudices of the early Cold War are not as distant as many American China
watchers might have hoped. The presidential transition in the United States
this year makes a natural point of inflection to reconsider what is true about
Chinese capabilities, reckon with what China’s intentions might be and cope

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

directly with the fact that widespread American unfamiliarity with China and
fear of its authoritarianism is making U.S. policies less effective and relevant.
The biases and implicit assumptions in the United States about China de-
scribed in the nuclearization examples above also influenced the diplomatic
normalization process and early years of post-normalization bilateral diplo-
macy. The risk of “othering” China in assessments or approaching negotia-
tions with an attitude of superiority has not vanished over the years that the
United States has pursued a policy of engagement with China. China experts
in the United States are starting to recognize that engagement policy intro-
duced in the 1970s and 1980s, intended to mentor the People’s Republic
toward Western-style democratic transition has not worked as expected par-
tially because of its intrinsic emphasis on the superiority of the United States.
Analytic traps in the 1950s and 1960s and the effect they had on the U.S.
government’s understanding of China’s nuclear arms development thus offer
an important cautionary tale today.
Constructive debate within the United States over China’s intentions and
how to respond will require truthful acceptance of China’s current and po-
tential capabilities. Practical and effective policy development cannot proceed
if stakeholders cannot accurately grasp capabilities and intentions of their
counterparts. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. intelligence commu-
nity is not the audience that most needs the message of the mistakes the U.S.
assessments made about China’s nuclearization. National security method-
ologies have evolved to recognize and challenge biases, and the workforce has
diversified. Experts on China are far more numerous in the United States now
than during the Cold War, and successful programs to lure personnel with
expertise on the issues and regions most strategically important to the United
States have helped the U.S. government. The greater risk lies with the increas-
ing number of U.S. companies and industries that influence—and are influ-
enced by—U.S.-China relations. This expansion means that more Americans
not likely to have been previously exposed to education about China’s history,
politics, or culture are now stakeholders. They are left to form their own as-
sessments of Chinese capabilities with the aid of siloed media, often deeply
politicized and preserving the biases apparent in the historical case above.
With influence over the bilateral relationship diffused over a much broader
cross section of American society than was the case in the 1950s and 1960s,

Sara B. Castro

the responsibility of policymakers and public intellectuals to provide fact-

based guidance on China and authentic policy toward China has increased.
Policymakers, public intellectuals and government officials in the United
States who follow China closely and have become aware of the bias trap that
exists in underestimating Chinese capability have an obligation to raise the
level of discourse and improve diplomacy. Programs that improve American
education about China would pay dividends for years to come. Some changes
that could aid this process are relatively simple to accomplish:

● Renew past efforts at hiring government officials who have expertise on

China and generate new hiring incentives for these individuals.

● Encourage companies in industries that rely on business with China to

incentivize China expertise in hiring.

● Remove the Trump Administration’s limitations on the Fulbright

exchange program between the United States and China.

● Develop and fortify U.S. Department of Education and State

Department programs that encourage U.S. students to pursue the study
of Chinese history, politics, and language.

● Support programs for Track II diplomacy between the United States and
China and continue to innovate these opportunities.

Counterintelligence concerns have caused the U.S. government to increase

limitations on these kinds of engagement programs in the past decade. A more
constructive approach would be for the U.S. government to boost internal
counterintelligence efforts and perform greater outreach and training to the
U.S. public about the realities of Chinese espionage and cyber espionage pro-
grams. For example, efforts could include:

● Fostering cooperation between U.S. government and the tech sector to

produce standards for security, privacy, and freedom from surveillance in
the cyber realm.

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

● Improving public outreach in the United States to explain security

concerns with Chinese technology that have spurred specific regulations,
such as Huawei 5G and TikTok.

A change in the U.S. diplomatic attitude toward China to start treating it
more as “peer” than “near peer,” in terms of capabilities, will be challenging
to orchestrate, even in a new presidential administration. Treating China as
a capable counterpart instead of a younger sibling that needs mentorship will
require a paradigm shift for some U.S. stakeholders. Nonetheless, this goal is
worth attempting because without doing so, the world is likely to move on
without U.S. leadership. As David Wertime wrote, “America doesn’t get to
veto China’s rise, only to reckon with it.”44 Many have convincingly argued
that this leadership shift is already occurring with Sino-European relations
changing fast, and Europe already taking a global leadership role on issues of
technology governance and data security. The United States can simultane-
ously recognize China’s strengths and present viable alternatives that compete
favorably with Chinese global efforts. These approaches are not exclusive and
need not suggest U.S. weakness.
Recognizing China’s strengths does not equate to being “soft” on China or
relinquishing the ability to serve a global leadership role on issues of impor-
tance. Historical cases within the last century reveal the harms of allowing
prejudice and assumptions to distort critical reflection on the important Sino-
American relationship; now is a perfect time to recalibrate to address it.

The views expressed in this essay are those of its author, Dr. Sara B. Castro, and
do not represent the official policy or position of the United States Air Force
Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, the
Wilson Center, or any other organization.

1. From “Mao Zedong, “There are Two Intermediate Zones,” September 1963, Translation from the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and the Party Literature Research

Sara B. Castro

Center, eds. Mao Zedong on Diplomacy (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1998): 387–389.
2. “Statement of the government of the People’s Republic of China,” October 16, 1964. Wilson
Center Digital Archive,
b285ced771d74928ea6f2a778b5f78 , accessed on 10 October 2020.
3. John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb, (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1988): 11–46 and 244.
4. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “China”,, accessed on 1 December 2020.
5. For further on the chronology of U.S. intelligence on China’s nuclearization, see Jeffrey T.
Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and
North Korea, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).
6. Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb, 137. Some scholars, such as M. Taylor Fravel,
have suggested that Chinese military leaders and strategists discussed and considered
nuclearization even before this date.
7. William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, “Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle”: The
United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960–1964,” International Security 25:3
(Winter 2000–2001): 58. By 1955, many details about nuclear technology had become
public, at least to scientists.
8. Burr and Richelson, “Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle,” 58.
9. For further on the details of China’s early nuclear program, see Lewis and Xue, China Builds
the Bomb.
10. Although PRC leaders did declare China’s intention to develop nuclear weapons, they did not
celebrate or publicize milestones along the way to the first successful test in 1964 in the press.
11. Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng calculated losses of at least 36 million, reported in his book
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
2012). Other estimates vary. The estimated casualty figure is the source of some debate. The
exact casualties in the Great Famine are unknown and may be impossible for historians to
ever fully reconstruct.
12. Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb, 244–245
13. Fravel, Active Defense, 74.
14. Talk by Mao Zedong at an enlarged Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Central
Committee Politburo (Excerpts),” April 25, 1956, History and Public Policy Program Digital
Archive, Mao Zedong wenji, vol. 7 )Beijing Renmin chubanshe, 1999), 27. Translated by Neil
15. Mao Zedong at enlarged Politburo meeting, April 25, 1956, 27. http://digitalarchive.
16. Fravel, Active Defense, p. 236.
17. Ibid, 236.
18. Director of Central Intelligence, “National Intelligence Estimate 13–58: Communist
China” May 13, 1958, republished in National Intelligence Council, Tracking the Dragon:
National Intelligence Estimates on China During the Era of Mao, 1948–1970, October
19. In the 1950s, John K Fairbank, who had worked in intelligence at the Office of Strategic
Services outpost in China during World War II, was teaching at Harvard University. His

Lop Nur and the U.S. Intelligence Gaze

students started publishing candid and objective studies of Chinese communism and PRC
leaders. See, for example, Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao,
(Harvard University Press, 1951).
20. John Service, Lost Chance in China: The World War II Despatches of John. S. Service, ed. by
Joseph W. Esherick, (New York: Random House, 1974): xx.
21. E.J. Kahn, Jr. The China Hands : America’s Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them,
(New York: Viking, 1972): 1.
22. For further on the debates at the creation of CIA, see Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, “Why was the
CIA established in 1947?” Intelligence and National Security 12:1 (1997): 21–40.
23. For further on the U.S. preference for technical tools in espionage, see Kristie Macrakis,
“Technophilic Hubris and Espionage Styles during the Cold War,” Isis, 101:2 (June 2010):
24. For further on National Intelligence Estimates, see Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From
Secrets to Policy, 7th Edition (Los Angeles: Sage, 2017): 84–85.
25. CIA, National Intelligence Estimate 13-2-62, “Chinese Communist Advanced Weapons
Capabilities,” April 25, 1962, declassified on May 2004;
26. NIE 13-2-62, 1.
27. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 143.
28. Sherman Kent, AD/NE, Memorandum for the Director, Subject: Chinese Communist
Capabilities for Developing an Effective Atomic Weapons Program and Weapons Delivery
Program, June 24, 1955 quoted in Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 143.
29. By NIE 100-3-60 on August 9, 1960, CIA describes a rift between Soviet and Chinese
leaders. See NIC, Tracking the Dragon, 215–249.
30. See Burr and Richelson, “Whether to Strangle the Baby in the Cradle,” 58.
31. CIA, National Intelligence Estimate 13-2-62, “Chinese Communist Advanced Weapons
Capabilities,” April 25, 1962, declassified on May 2004;
32. For clear and comprehensive explanations of basic nuclear weapons technology relevant to
this point, see Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb, especially chapters 4 and 5.
33. Lewis and Xue, 55.
34. Ibid, 113. Simple and small-scale Soviet equipment shared to jumpstart China’s nuclear
energy program in the early 1950s may have given China’s scientists a boost in the 1950s, but
this technology alone was insufficient to deliver a successful plutonium warhead in the 1960s.
35. For further on the Black Cat pilots, see Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 146.
36. For example, see NIE 13-2-62 from April 25, 1962 as previously referenced.
37. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 139.
38. Both Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, Ch. 4, and Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb
mention Chinese efforts at nuclear secrecy regularly.
39. Burr and Richelson, “Whether to Strangle the Baby in the Cradle,” 65.
40. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 161–162.
41. Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) 13-4-64 “The Chances of an Imminent
Chinese Communist Nuclear Explosion” August 26, 1964, Tracking the Dragon, 365–375.
42. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman broke the story. “Suspected Chinese spy
targeted California politicians,” AXIOS, December 8, 2020.

Sara B. Castro

43. Reuters, “China formally opens first overseas military base in Djibouti,”
August 1, 2017.
44. David Wertime, “Will the U.S. Leave Only One Great Power?” POLITICO
October 9, 2020,


The Emerging Great Power

Triangle: China, India and
the United States in the
Indian Ocean Region

Christopher K. Colley is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow.

Christopher K. Colley

The past two decades have witnessed a significant warming of ties between the
United States and India. A core driver of this has been the uncertainty behind
the rise of China and what this means for India. China’s rapid ascent repre-
sents both opportunities and challenges for India in the Indian Ocean Region
(IOR). This paper examines several key questions surrounding this develop-
ment. For example, how aware is Beijing of Indian sensitivities surrounding
Chinese activities in South Asia and the IOR? Are Chinese analysts cognizant
of the impact that Chinese activities have on the strengthening of ties between
New Delhi and Washington? Of equal importance, are decision makers in the
U.S. conscious of the concern their Indian counterparts have about working
too closely with the Americans? Importantly, this paper addresses one of the
crucial developments of the 21st Century, the geopolitics of the rise of China
and India and the role that the United States plays in this phenomenon.

Policy Recommendations:
● New Delhi is willing to work closely with Washington, but it is not
willing to form any kind of formal anti-China alliance with the United
States. American leaders need to temper their expectations of India and
not force New Delhi into a situation where Indian leaders feel they are
being pressured to join some sort of explicitly anti-China alliance.

● If Beijing continues to misplay its hand vis-à-vis India and seems tone
deaf to how its behavior is pushing India closer to the United States,
Washington should take full advantage of Chinese mistakes in the region
and capitalize on these by forging closer ties with India.

● Washington needs to be aware of New Delhi’s limits, these include the

unwillingness of New Delhi severing or curtailing India’s security ties
with Russia.

● American policy makers need to keep a close watch on some of the

domestic constraints Indian leaders may face to deepening bilateral
ties. While the Modi administration has been able to sidestep many of

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

the constituencies that hobbled previous administrations from forging

closer relations with Washington, American officials need to be have an
accurate gauge of the political left in India. When necessary, they need to
work with their Indian counterparts to head off any potential challenges
that may arise from such political parties or groups in the future.

● Domestic politics in India are much more critical than foreign policy.
New Delhi’s ties with Washington are important to American leaders,
but they are not a core concern to India and are best viewed as a
peripheral issue. The COVID-19 pandemic’s harmful impact on the
Indian economy will likely increase the saliency of domestic issues over
foreign policy.

Christopher K. Colley

The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on
October 27, 2020, was the fourth and final major foundational defense agree-
ment between Washington and New Delhi. This combined with the three
previous agreements, represents a sustained commitment by both democra-
cies to increase military-to-military cooperation and interoperability between
their respective forces. For the past two decades these agreements, that are
common between the U.S. and its allies and partners, were extremely contro-
versial in India. It has only been in the last five years that substantial prog-
ress has been made to their implementation. A key and decisive driver of New
Delhi’s willingness to cooperate with Washington in the security field has
been the rising power and influence of China in South Asia and the Indian
Ocean Region (IOR).
This paper examines the drivers and the security dynamics of the evolving
strategic relationship between the United States and India and the role that
China plays in this process. While China’s rise is viewed as an opportunity
for many states in Asia and beyond, the festering Sino-India rivalry has shown
no signs of abating, and in fact, in the summer of 2020 it witnessed its first
deadly encounters in 45 years.1 Specifically, this essay will analyze these dy-
namics from the perspectives of Beijing, New Delhi, and Washington. Some
of the key questions asked are: how cognizant are Chinese leaders and policy
analysts of India’s concerns about Chinese activities in South Asia? How close
is India willing to get to the U.S.? Is Washington aware of Indian sensitivi-
ties towards working with the U.S.? This paper makes its conclusion by draw-
ing on extensive interviews conducted in China and India from 2016–2019,
and from a deep reading of the relevant scholarly and policy literature in both
English and Chinese.
This essay is divided into four sections. First, I provide a short, but neces-
sary background and introduction to the current situation. Second, I discuss
the American approach and analyze American interests and goals. The third
section assesses the role that China plays in the dynamic. The final section
examines the situation from India’s perspective.

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

The Sino-Indian rivalry has been a fixture of Asian geopolitics since the 1950s.
A core component of this rivalry is the territorial dispute along their shared
Himalayan border. Contested territory is found in multiple areas, but it pri-
marily centered on Aksai Chin, a 38,000 square kilometer section of land on
the Ladakh and Tibetan borders in the northwest of India, and Arunnachal
Pradesh/South Tibet (90,000 square kilometers) along the northeastern
Himalayan border. Tensions led to a brief, but bloody, war in October 1962,
where the Chinese military quickly defeated Indian forces. The war and defeat
came as a shock to India and to this day has a powerful influence on Indian
perceptions of China.2
The post-1962 era witnessed multiple periods of military mobilization along
the border, but no large scale conventional military confrontations. Since the
1980s there have been regular confidence building measures (CMBs) between
Beijing and New Delhi, but no major diplomatic breakthroughs. In fact, in
every year since 1981, there have been talks aimed at solving the dispute. These
include eight rounds of vice-ministerial meetings in the 1980s, 15 meetings of
joint working group from 1989–2005, and 21 meetings of special representa-
tives at the level of national security advisor since 2003.3 A potential solution
to the territorial dispute would have both states accept the status quo that has
existed for over a half century, which would entail China keeping Aksai Chin,
which it occupies, and India maintaining Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet
for China), which it occupies and in 1987 was made an Indian state. While
China floated the idea of a “border swap” in 1960 and 1980, for reasons of
sovereignty, and of possibly greater importance, domestic political consider-
ations, India has rejected such a solution. Jawaharlal Nehru justified his rejec-
tion of the potential swap in 1960, by stating, “if I give them Aksai Chin I
shall no longer be Prime Minister of India—I will not do it”4
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the rivalry has expanded from the
Himalayas to the IOR. According to the Indian Navy, at any given time 6–8
Chinese warships are present in the northern Indian Ocean.5 While such pa-
trols are in full accordance with international law, they significantly increase
New Delhi’s perceptions about being “contained by China.”6 These naval for-
ays by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), along with the
continuing tensions along the border and the overall greater anxiety in India

Christopher K. Colley

about the long-term strategic implications of China’s rise, have provided a

strategic opportunity for Washington to push for a closer and much deeper
relationship with New Delhi. The deadly confrontation along the Tibetan/
Ladakh border in the summer of 2020 only reinforces the hand of those in
India and the United States who advocate a more robust defense relationship.
It is in this context that this report is derived.

I. America’s Outreach to India.

American Interests:
Over the past two decades Washington’s rivalry with China has expanded
from tensions centered on the status of Taiwan and China’s immediate pe-
riphery to a much more comprehensive rivalry that is rapidly extending to the
global arena. Since at least 2000, every American administration has sought
to strengthen bilateral relations with India as a way to hedge against the un-
certainty of the rise of China. A cornerstone of these ties have been the foun-
dational defense agreements between the two country’s militaries.

Foundational Agreements:
The current American military outreach to India saw its first major accom-
plishment in 2002 when, after 15 years of negotiations between Washington
and New Delhi, the General Security of Military Information Agreement
(GSOMIA) was signed. This was followed by the signing of the New
Framework for Defense Cooperation in 2005 and the 2012 U.S. Defense
Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). The New Framework for Defense
Cooperation was renewed in 2015 for another 10 years.7 The GSOMIA is
a foundational defense agreement that furthered defense ties. Such agree-
ments are usually paired with other foundational agreements. However, due
to mostly domestic political considerations in India (see below) it would take
another 14 years before the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of
Agreement (LEMOA) agreement was signed. This was followed in 2018 with
the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement
(COMCASA). These documents helped facilitate logistical challenges and in-
teroperability between the two militaries.8 The final defense agreement, the

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), was signed in October

2020. This specific agreement helps facilitate the provision of targeting and
navigation data from American combat systems and makes available a more
advanced version of GPS reserved for the Pentagon, which is classified and
much more accurate than the civilian one.9
From a military-to-military perspective, these agreements open the door
to enhanced cooperation, thus strengthening ties and enhancing interoper-
ability. One of the most recent examples of this can be seen in November 2019
with the first ever tri-service exercise between the United States and India.
The nine-day “Tiger Triumph” exercise was ostensibly about humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief, but a core goal was to expand interoperability.10

American Expectations and Goals:

A central American goal is to work with India and enhance the interoper-
ability of conventional military forces and to help counter the uncertainty
surrounding China’s rise.11 Perceptions of an assertive China have greatly
increased over the past decade and India—with its size, geographic location,
and enormous potential—is one of the few countries that can directly assist
Washington in this goal. The Pentagon’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report
classified India as a “Major Defense Partner,” a status unique to India. The
designation seeks to elevate the U.S. defense partnership with India to a level
commensurate with that of America’s closest allies and partners.”12 This, when
combined with the renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) to the
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), firmly places India at the
center of American grand strategy.13
A key question is, what does Washington expect from New Delhi? Indian
leaders and foreign policy strategists do see China as a long term strategic
challenge. In a 2019 poll conducted by Brookings India, 75 percent of India’s
strategic community see the United States as India’s most important partner
on global issues. Furthermore, 54 percent view China’s perceived assertive-
ness “as the most significant external challenge India faces.”14 While Beijing
is clearly viewed as a threat by India’s strategic community, this does not
mean that New Delhi is ready to join Washington in an anti-China alliance.15
Several analysts from the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington D.C. have
warned that American decision makers must temper their expectations of

Christopher K. Colley

India as New Delhi is not a reliable partner for countering China.16 Despite
the growing power of China, some in the New Delhi’s security think tanks
see the foundational agreements as attempts to make India a client state of
the U.S.17 Alyssa Ayres, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for
South Asia, has warned that leaders in New Delhi do not necessarily welcome
every offer of help from Washington. This even applies to situations where
the U.S. believes it is bending over backward to help New Delhi.18 Ayres also
stated that she regularly heard decision makers in Washington refer to India
as an “ally.” While this may not appear to be a major gaff, as will be discussed
in greater detail below, India policy makers are vehemently opposed to a for-
mal alliance with Washington.19
While India and the United States do not have an official alliance, interest-
ingly, India conducts more military training exercises with the United States
than with any other country.20 The United States has been instrumental in
India’s defense modernization program. As Figure 1 below shows, over the
past 15 years the U.S. was the second largest source of arms imports to India,
second to only Russia.

FIGURE 1. Indian Arms Imports from the U.S. and Russia: 2004–2019.
Based on Trend Indicator Values. (SIPRI)21

Indian Arms Imports From the U.S. and Russia: 2004-2019. in Trend Indicator Values. (SIPRI)

3,500 RUSSIA
2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

India’s Russian Dependency:

As noted in Figure 1 above, Russia has been a crucial source of arms to India
for years. Russian weapons systems are ubiquitous in the Indian military.
Russian warplanes such as the SU-30 and Mig-21 and Mig-29 form the back-
bone of the Indian air force, and Russian warplanes represented nearly 75 per-
cent of India’s total fighter bomber fleet as of 2019, while 44 Mig-29K/KUBs
are divided into two squadrons that constitute the naval fighter bomber
wings.22 Of India’s 15 diesel electric attack submarines (SSK) nine are Russian
Kilo-class submarines renamed the Sindhughosh-class and serve as stalwarts
of India’s undersea warfare programs. In addition, India’s one nuclear pow-
ered attack submarine (SSN), the Chakra, is the renamed Russian Submarine
Akula II.23 Since 2009, the Russian nuclear powered submarine the Arihant,
a scaled back version of the Russian Charlie-class with 4 silos instead of 8, was
used by the Indian navy as a training platform.24
American opposition to Indian purchases of Russian weapons, and threats
of economic sanctions if India persists in acquiring advanced systems such as
S-400 missile batteries are counterproductive. For decades India has relied on
both Soviet or Russian systems and even if New Delhi wanted to walk away
from Moscow, it could not. So much of India’s inventory is reliant of Russian
technology and thus, potential spare parts, that the idea of India breaking
from their Russian suppliers is a non-starter. This is a point that policy makers
in Washington need to realize. In addition, New Delhi has legitimate con-
cerns about long-term American reliability. While American has been instru-
mental in working with India in certain areas, (such as nuclear power) con-
cerns over contentious issues such as human rights, the status of Muslims in
India, or changes in American administrations that may not be as willing to
work with India, cause New Delhi to diversify their sources of military hard-
ware. This is both a political and strategic decision in India.

The Dragon in the Room:

Indian leaders are not willing and will likely never be willing to join a formal
alliance with the United States against China. However, this political real-
ity has not stopped the two states from cooperating on countering China’s
emerging role in the IOR. In terms of weapons systems, as noted in Figure
1 above, the United States has been a major supplier of arms and logistical

Christopher K. Colley

equipment to India over the past decade. Some of these systems include an
entire squadron of 11 C-17A heavy transport aircraft, Apache helicopter gun-
ships, and a squadron of 8 P-8I Neptune anti-submarine warfare aircraft.25
The Manmohan Singh government which was in power from 2004–2014
was much more skeptical of American designs than the current Modi admin-
istration. Under Singh’s Minister of Defense, A.K. Antony, the Indian mili-
tary reduced the number of naval exercises with the American navy because
of Chinese opposition and a desire to reduce the profile of U.S.-India mili-
tary cooperation.26 Antony’s constituency in Kerala has major concerns about
getting too close to the United States, and military-to-military ties therefore
suffered. This changed dramatically when Narendra Modi came to power in
2014.27 Importantly, in Modi’s first four months in office, India had more
high-level engagement with Chinese officials than with American ones. Prime
Minister Modi even spoke about potentially solving and not just managing
the territorial dispute.28 Several months after taking power, Modi hosted
Chinese President Xi Jinping in India. However, just before the September
visit, Chinese troops crossed into Indian territory and constructed new roads
and stayed for 20 days.29 This incursion coinciding with an official visit by the
Chinese leader was perceived as an insult to Modi and to India. After this
episode, it was clear to the Modi administration that the U.S. was essential to
Indian security interests.30
Of strategic significance, the United States and India are laying sensors
designed to track Chinese submarines on the ocean floors of critical choke
points leading into the Indian Ocean.31 In addition, the United States is also
assisting India on both its nuclear submarine program and aircraft carrier pro-
gram.32 Perhaps of greater importance is the reported assistance Washington
has provided to New Delhi during periods of border infractions such as the
2017 Doklam standoff,33 as well as the 2020 Galwan conflict.34 In fact, accord-
ing to Kenneth Juster, the American Ambassador to India, during the tense
Ladakh standoff the U.S. provided crucial intelligence. He states, “our close
coordination has been important as India confronts, perhaps on a sustained
basis, aggressive Chinese activity on its border,” Such confirmation is in addi-
tion to the working relationship between Trump administration Secretary of
Defense Mark Esper and his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, who are also
reported to have discussed the standoff.35

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

Takeaways for USA:

The events of the past year have provided American policy makers with a stra-
tegic opportunity to work with India on China-related issues. Real or perceived
Chinese aggressiveness both along the China-India border and in the IOR,
have made New Delhi much more amendable to America’s strategy of counter-
ing China. This, when combined with the Modi administration’s willingness
to partner with Washington, greatly enhances the prospects for future bilateral
ties. However, Washington must be cognizant of the following five key points.

● New Delhi is willing to work closely with Washington, but is not willing
to form any kind of formal anti-China alliance with the United States.
American leaders need to temper their expectations of India and not
force New Delhi into a situation where Indian leaders feel they are being
pressured to join some sort of explicitly anti-China alliance.

● If Beijing continues to misplay its hand vis-à-vis India and seems tone
deaf to how its behavior is pushing India closer to the United States,
Washington should take full advantage of Chinese mistakes in the region
and capitalize on these by forging closer ties with India.

● Washington needs to be aware of New Delhi’s limits, these include the

unwillingness of New Delhi severing or curtailing India’s security ties
with Russia.

● American policy makers need to keep a close watch on some of the

domestic constraints Indian leaders may face to deepening bilateral
ties. While the Modi administration has been able to sidestep many of
the constituencies that hobbled previous administrations from forging
closer relations with Washington, American officials need to be have an
accurate gauge of the political left in India. When necessary, they need to
work with their Indian counterparts to head off any potential challenges
that may arise from such political parties or groups in the future.

● Domestic politics in India are much more critical than foreign policy.
New Delhi’s ties with Washington are important to American leaders,

Christopher K. Colley

but they are not a core concern to India and are best viewed as a
peripheral issue. The COVID-19 pandemic’s harmful impact on the
Indian economy will likely increase the saliency of domestic issues over
foreign policy.

II. Chinese Views of the Evolving India-U.S. Partnership.

For most of the past 70 years South Asia and India, in particular, have not
been high on China’s strategic agenda. From a security perspective, Chinese
leaders have been preoccupied with East Asia and the United States. It is
only recently that security concerns in the IOR, many of these centered on
China’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), have gained more prominence
in Beijing. While more attention is now directed towards India, part of this
is related to recent Chinese concerns about the budding defense ties between
New Delhi and Washington.

China and its SLOCs: From Dalian to Rotterdam:

The year 1993 was an important year for China and its SLOCs. The year is fre-
quently cited as the point when China became a net importer of oil, which is
often viewed a critical juncture in Chinese overseas trade.36 What is less pub-
licized is that this same year the Chinese merchant ship “Yinhe” (“Galaxy” in
English) was stopped on the high seas by the U.S. Navy on its way from China
to Iran. While the precise details of the case are available in other works, it is
relevant to point out that the Yinhe was suspected of carrying components
used in the manufacture of chemical weapons.37 The U.S. Navy shadowed the
Yinhe across the Indian Ocean and then forcefully stopped it and had a crew
from Saudi Arabia search it for contraband. Importantly, no illicit materials
were found, and the Yinhe was allowed to continue on to Iran. Unbeknownst
to most western security analysts, this event had a profound impact on Chinese
thinking about protection of Chinese SLOCs. Sha Zukang a Chinese diplo-
mat and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs,
publically stated, “I think that we were bullied [by America] because we
[China] are not strong enough…As we used to say that ‘weak countries have
no diplomacy,’ I am afraid that this is an example of that.”38 The impact that

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

this event had on the Chinese government and military was profound. One
of Beijing’s leading security scholars who has given lectures to the top levels of
the Chinese government called the event a “great humiliation” and stated that
China has to take action so that this will “never happen again.”39
In the 28 years since the Yinhe incident, the PLAN has gone from a force
with less than 5 percent of its force considered “modern” by the American
Office of Naval Intelligence, to a force able to project power on a regular basis
in the IOR with entire categories of warships approaching the criteria for
being classified as “modern.”40 Chinese SLOCs through the IOR now carry
80 percent of China’s imported oil,41 as well as 95 percent of China’s trade to
the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.42 In order to protect these vital SLOCs,
the Chinese government has devised several linked strategies. The concept of
“forward edge defense” calls for China to set up an “arc-shaped strategic zone
the covers the western Pacific Ocean and northern Indian Ocean.”43 In for-
mer Chinese President Hu Jintao’s 2012 speech to the 18th Party Congress,
he specifically called for China to have the ability to “resolutely safeguard
China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime
power.”44 Other Chinese analysts have advocated for additional strategies in
the Indian Ocean.
Song Dexing, Director of the Nanjing Institute of International Relations,
argues that the main concern for China is energy security in the IOR, and
the real challenge for China is India and the U.S. seeking to jointly control
the India Ocean.50 Hu Bo, the Director of Beijing University’s Center for
Maritime Strategy Studies and one of China’s leading authorities on maritime
security, has called for China to establish two oceangoing fleets (for the Pacific
and northern Indian Oceans) centered around aircraft carriers. Professor Hu
argues that “by maintaining a certain military presence in the India Ocean, it
will prevent adversaries from paralyzing China’s operational resolve by means
of sabotage, blockade, or restrictions on China’s SLOCs.”51
China’s expanding missions aimed at SLOC protection in the IOR have
raised serious concerns in India. As stated above, the PLAN operates at any
given time 6–8 warships in the northern Indian Ocean. In the summer of
2017, the PLAN conducted live fire exercises in the region, which caused the
Indian Navy to initiate “Mission Based Deployments” (MBD) that are de-
signed to shadow PLAN warships throughout the IOR.52

Christopher K. Colley

TABLE 1. Estimated 2021 Chinese, American and Indian Modern Blue

Water Capable Vessels.45

Vessel Type United States India China

Aegis type DDG 90 4 36

Modern Frigate 2546 4 30

Aircraft Carriers 11 1 247

048 16 30
Nuclear Powered
57 2 14

Total Vessels49 261 33 132

Chinese efforts to protect SLOCs by sending warships to the IOR, causes

rising concern in New Delhi. Simply put, China sends warships to the IOR
to defend Chinese interests against possible American-led attempts to sever
Chinese SLOCs. These very naval forays cause great unease in New Delhi
driving India to both modernize its navy, and of greater strategic significance,
to work much more closely with Washington.
The role of the Belt and Road Initiative, has been cited by Chinese secu-
rity scholars as a tool to be utilized in the IOR. Liang Meng argues that the
BRI can break the “strategic containment” of China by the United States
and India. Meng further states that American bases in the Indian Ocean
have triggered “great dissatisfaction in India.”53 Several analysts from the
Chinese Naval Academy of Military Science pointed out that China lacks
a “strategic fulcrum” in the Indian Ocean and that this needs to be estab-
lished. While these author’s call for maintaining the “flatness” of the China-
India-U.S. triangle, and argue for minimizing “military color” in the region,
they still insist on developing potential bases in Dar-es-Salem, Hambantota,
or the Seychelles.54

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

Chinese Perceptions of India:

Chinese scholars and analysts tend to view India as a “second rate power”
and view South Asia in general as a “secondary strategic direction for China’s
rise.”55 One of China’s leading scholars of maritime security argues that China
does not see India as a threat, but he believes more and more Indians view
China as a threat. This scholar stated that the Chinese government does
not take the Indian navy seriously and it is only recently in academic circles
that the Indian navy has gained more scrutiny. Greater attention to India is
largely based on the Indian navy’s ability to interfere with Chinese SLOCs.
While acknowledging the development of India’s maritime capability he ar-
gued that the border conflict is a more serious issue.56 Some Chinese analysts
have even stated that Beijing views India as the “weak link in the Quad” (The
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic forum composing the
U.S., India, Japan and Australia).57 While Chinese security experts empha-
sized the secondary role that India plays in Chinese strategic calculations, sev-
eral were quick to point out the growing concerns in Beijing about the rapidly
warming ties between Washington and New Delhi.

Chinese Views of India-U.S. Ties:

Chinese security and South Asian experts may not see India as a great
power, but there is wide agreement that India, when combined with the
United States, represents a serious threat to Chinese interests. Multiple
Chinese experts explained that these emerging ties are “a big problem” and
that this represents a major security concern for China.58 Interestingly,
one expert whose focus is on South Asia, argued that the CPEC (China-
Pakistan Economic Corridor) helps drive India towards the United States:
“The Chinese leadership knows this, but there is no consistent foreign pol-
icy for China.”59
Zheng Xinkai has warned of Washington playing the “India card” and has
stated that “the strategic base in the Unites States’ ‘India Strategy’ lies in the
fact that the United States looks to India, whose strength is rising...India sees
the United States as a balanced force for the threat posed by China’s rise.”60
Lin Minwang of Fudan University and one of China’s leading South Asia ex-
perts has even referred to India as “the prize” of strategic competition between
great powers. Lin also writes that President Trump’s February 2020 visit to

Christopher K. Colley

India was designed to show America’s strategic relevance to India while also
reinforcing U.S.-India defense ties.61
Several Chinese analysts have voiced skepticism on the durability of India-
U.S. relations. Wang Shida believes that close India-U.S. security coopera-
tion has had a serious negative impact on India’s overall foreign strategy, es-
pecially in regards to its tradition of long-standing strategic independence.
Furthermore, Wang argues that the U.S. uses military technology as “bait”
to increase India’s procurement of U.S. weapons, thus diminishing India’s
autonomy.62 Xiao Jun is also skeptical of long-term Indian-American ties be-
cause each state has different strategic ideas, different perceptions of interna-
tional affairs, and disputes between the two on the issue of defense and secu-
rity cooperation. Xiao argues that the U.S. considers India to be an important
partner to curb the rise of China and that it continues to increase its relation-
ship with India on the grounds of the “China threat theory.”63
In one of the more interesting analyses of this evolving security dynamic,
Zheng Yongnian argues “when we deal with China-India relations, the first
thing we must consider is: Do not push India into the American Camp.” In
addition, Zheng points out that if the Sino-India border crisis promotes the
alliance between the United States, Japan, and India, the consequences will
be very troublesome for China and that China’s understanding of India is
far from enough and is often biased and wrong.64 Zheng is clearly cognizant
of the dangers of being too aggressive towards New Delhi, and this level of
awareness and “speaking truth to power” is crucial if China seeks to reduce
tensions with India. This is especially true after the deadly violence of June
2020. While Professor Zheng’s interview was posted in Chinese language
media, he is based at the National University of Singapore, and thus may have
greater latitude in discussing such matters.
Blaming India for the recent violence, as some Chinese analysts do as a
“solo adventure” planned by Colonel Santosh Babu of the Indian army, may
be politically correct and convenient in Beijing, but will likely not help bring
the two sides together, or for that matter convince New Delhi to keep its dis-
tance from Washington.65 Zhang Jiadong and Wei Han, also from Fudan
University, touches on the role that China plays as a driver of cooperation
between the United States and India by stating that it is “to a certain ex-
tent in response to the development of China’s Belt and Road.” They further

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

a­ cknowledge that the re-emergence of the “Quad” is a response to China’s

new maritime strategy.66 However, they do not offer any deep assessment on
why India may feel threatened by China’s expanding role in South Asia.
Overall, Chinese perceptions of India’s ties with Washington are varied.
However, very few Chinese analysts are willing to publically warn Chinese
leaders of the dangers of pushing too hard on India. A long-standing fear in
China is to be surrounded by hostile countries and the possibility of a two-
front conflict, one in East Asia and one along the Himalayan border would be
a strategic disaster for Beijing. The perceived rise of the so called nationalistic
and aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy of the past several years has led to a
growing mistrust of China. An October 2020 survey from the Pew Research
Center found that on average 73 percent of respondents in a 14 country sur-
vey hold “very or somewhat unfavorable views” of China.67 Real or imagined,
China’s perceived aggressiveness is a direct cause of India moving much closer
to the United States. This is clearly not in Beijing’s long-term strategic interest.

Recommendations for China:

● Real or imagined Chinese aggressive behavior in South Asia is a direct
cause of New Delhi and Washington enhancing security ties. Beijing
should look at how it responds to American political and military moves in
East Asia and understand how this raises threat perceptions in Beijing and
apply these same fears to Indian concerns over Chinese military activities
in the IOR. A similar level of empathy with New Delhi and actions taken
to reduce Indian concerns may help to alleviate strategic mistrust.

● Publically decouple the BRI from CPEC. While Chinese officials no

longer use the term “BRI” around Indian officials, the fact that CPEC
runs through contested territory and India was not originally consulted
on its implementation makes it nearly politically impossible for Indian
leaders to cooperate with the BRI.

● Find a solution to the border dispute. While half of this rests on New
Delhi’s willingness to accept a solution (extremely difficult), in its current
state it is a political weapon for hawks in Washington and New Delhi
to justify closer strategic relations between the United States and India.

Christopher K. Colley

A “border swap” may not be feasible, but the status quo, as recent events
have demonstrated, is a liability.

● Avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy. Beijing has managed to convince itself

that Washington is bent on “containing” China and preventing its rise.
Evidence of such “containment” is frequently cited as American military
maneuvers with China’s neighbors. What Beijing needs to realize is that
many of these states are hedging against the uncertainties of China’s
rise and reach out to Washington as a result. Real or perceived Chinese
bullying of smaller Asian states, will likely lead them to hedge with the
United States. This is clearly not in China’s interest.

III. India and the Triangle:

India’s festering rivalry with China has experienced periods of both relative
calm and sharp escalation over the past six decades. The deadly encounters over
the summer of 2020 were the first recorded fatalities in 45 years between the
Indian and Chinese militaries. While China’s rise has been seen as an oppor-
tunity by some in India, large sections of the political and security establish-
ment view China with apprehension, fear, or both.68 In the security commu-
nity, the greatest concern over China’s rise is fear of “containment” by China.
With China’s “all weather friendship” with Pakistan, the protracted border
dispute in both the western and eastern sections of the Himalayas, and, over
the past two decades, regular PLAN incursions into the IOR, Indian politi-
cians—and especially the Modi administration—perceive China increasingly
as a threat. Understanding New Delhi’s perceptions of Chinese “contain-
ment” is essential to assessing the emerging China-India-U.S. triangle.

Perceptions of Chinese Containment:

India’s primary geostrategic objective in the Indo-Pacific is to prevent China
from dominating the region. There are strong concerns in New Delhi that
China is employing a policy of “strategic encirclement” of India. A recent
manifestation of this can be found in the various BRI projects in surround-
ing South Asian states where Beijing has plans ranging from investing more

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

than 62 billion dollars in CPEC in Pakistan, 69 to the building of bridges

in the Maldives.70 These, when combined with the occasional port visit by
Chinese warships, or more importantly, Chinese nuclear and diesel pow-
ered submarines, greatly exacerbate Indian concerns over China’s long term
plans for the region.
Of deep concern to New Delhi was the manner in which the BRI rolled
out in South Asia. According to numerous policy experts in New Delhi, the
Indian government was not consulted on the initial roll out of an initiative
that will have a profound impact on the physical connectivity of the entire
South Asia region. To make matters worse, a large portion of the CPEC
runs through territory that is claimed by India, but occupied by Pakistan.71
A commentary from S. Kalyanaraman of the Indian Ministry of Defenses’
think tank IDSA stated, “China’s objective until recently was to tie India
down within South Asia through support for Pakistan, it is now determined
to supplant India as the leading power in the Indian subcontinent as well as
become a predominant power in the Indian Ocean Region.” 72 The BRI, when
combined with the historical and psychological baggage attached to the ri-
valry and the long-standing tensions (and recent deadly violence) along the
disputed border, all contribute to perceptions in India of a rising China that is
determined to relegate India to second-class status in an Asia led by China.73
For their part many Chinese experts are strongly opposed to the idea that
China seeks Asian hegemony. They argue that the BRI is empirical evidence of
China providing public goods in the form of infrastructure to a region that is
in desperate need of quality roads, bridges, and power stations. In fact, Beijing
no longer uses the term “BRI” when dealing with their Indian counterparts.74
China’s Premier Li Keqiang reportedly told Modi that the CPEC is a means
to “wean the populace from fundamentalism” by promoting economic devel-
opment.75 This effort at persuading India of the benefits of the BRI failed.

Limited Progress on the Border Issue:

Despite decades of bilateral talks on trying to solve the territorial dispute, the
events of summer 2020 clearly demonstrate that this is a long way off. While
the possibility of a “ border swap,” may appear to be the easiest solution to the
issue, statements from Chinese President Xi that “not a single inch of our land ”
will be ceded by China make it very difficult for any Chinese leader to justify

Christopher K. Colley

relinquishing claims to the 90,000 square kilometer Indian state of Arunachal

Pradesh/South Tibet.76 Furthermore, any leader in New Delhi who gave up
Indian claims to the 38,000 square kilometer Aksai Chin could be voted out
of office. Interestingly, India has offered to formally demarcate the Line of
Actual Control, however this proposal was rejected by China.77
Both states have taken steps to reinforce their sections of the disputed terri-
tory. Over the past decade, India has built 73 new border roads, the majority of
them in the north-east. Although many of them have fallen behind schedule,
the fact that they are being constructed as a means to reinforce India’s claim
strength in the disputed territory is a cause of escalation. For its part, China
has built or is currently building multiple all weather roads and railways, as
well as upgrading airfields in Tibet.78 In fact, satellite images show that China
is rapidly reinforcing their presence in the disputed Doklam area.79

Changing Views of Washington:

As mentioned above, India-U. S. relations suffered when A .K . Antony was
Minister of Defense. However, since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014,
there has been steady progress in deepening military ties with the United States.
Such progress has been significantly aided by Chinese behavior, ranging from the
border incursions during President Xi ’s 2014 visit to India, to the border tension in
Doklam in 2017, to Beijing’s blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers
Group. Such acts of perceived aggression have been a welcome development for
security hawks in both New Delhi and Washington. Pu Xiaoyu has argued that
few in China have an understanding of India’s sensitivity about China’s presence
in South Asia and the IOR .80 Chinese behavior is causing India to “cautiously”
shed its aversion to alignment.81 The signing of the three foundational defense
agreements with Washington since Modi came to power is a powerful signal
of this. A recent paper published by the U.S. Army War College argued that
India needs to have a balance of power with China and that it needs to elicit
the help of the United States to achieve this.82
The Meetings between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in Wuhan
in 2018 and in Tamil Nadu in 2019 were an attempt by Beijing to stall and
reverse this geopolitical shift. However, considering the border events of June
2020, these meetings clearly failed to reduce underlying tensions. There con-
tinues to be a belief in China that India is so entrenched with its strategy of

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

strategic autonomy that alignment with the Americans is out of the ques-
tion.83 Such analysis in China is wishful thinking and is extremely counter-
productive. If the dominant narrative in Beijing is that ideological barriers in
India prevent it from developing a multifaceted working security relationship
with the United States, the Chinese are at risk of not only self-deception but,
of greater importance, lacking an understanding of how their own behavior
may be the primary cause of Indian-U.S. cooperation. The inability to self-re-
flect and realize how one’s own country’s behavior is perceived by other states
is not unique to China. In fact, this is a challenge that all countries must con-
front. However, the structure of the political system in China can cause such
views to be silenced or dismissed as simply anti-China rhetoric from China
bashers who “do not understand China.” As renowned sinologist John Garver
explains “Chinese beliefs about their country’s long history make it difficult
for Chinese to understand, put themselves in their neighbor’s shoes, and effec-
tively assuage or reassure their neighbor’s strong apprehensions about China’s
growing power.”84 China’s small, but growing field of South Asian scholars
and analysts need to make it clear to China’s leaders that Chinese actions in
South Asia, while being trumpeted as “win-win” arrangements, are not always
viewed as such in New Delhi. Such “win-win” deals may in fact be very helpful
and welcome in India’s neighbors, but, in the context of a rivalry and concerns
over Chinese ambitions in the IOR, they are often perceived through a zero-
sum prism in New Delhi.

Takeaways for India:

For the past seven years, New Delhi has steadily shed its longstanding aversion to
working with Washington. However, much work needs to be done to take full ad-
vantage of its new defense relationship with the Americans. While the two militar-
ies have frequent joint exercises, these need to be deeper and take advantage of the
opportunities that agreements like BECA and COMCASA provide. A complaint
of some of these exercises is that they are superficial and designed more for public
relations, than the pursuit of genuine interoperability.85 Even with the change of
leadership in Washington, New Delhi needs to be aware that the Sino-American
rivalry may see periods of relative thawing, but the structural mistrust and stra-
tegic competition are not likely to abate. Given such a situation Indian policy
makers would be wise to examine the following recommendations.

Christopher K. Colley

● Washington is firmly on New Delhi ’s side in the Sino-Indian rivalry.

New Delhi should leverage this to take full benefit of the opportunities
this affords India. These range from cooperation and working together
on strategic areas such as anti-submarine warfare and naval aviation. This
essentially entails continuing the current trajectory of relations and most
importantly, do not stall or reverse course on bilateral ties.

● New Delhi should make it clear to Washington that they are not going to be
an official American ally anytime in the near future, and possibly never. By
clearly articulating this, it will lower expectations in Washington, while also
preserving India’s ability to work with other partners such as Russia.

● Given the pressing infrastructure needs of India and South Asia, it would be
in India’s interest to find a workable solution to cooperating with China on
various infrastructure projects designed to increase regional connectivity.
There is a strong precedent for this in India’s signing on to the Chinese-
initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

● After the next leadership transition in India, the national security

community in New Delhi needs to protect the relationship with
Washington. This means preventing powerful figures from scuttling joint
operations and maintaining the top-level yearly exchanges, such as the 2+2
Ministerial Dialogue between each state’s respective top diplomat and
military official.

● New Delhi needs to meet the Americans halfway on various initiatives.

Frequent complaints from the American side that Washington is “ bending
over backward ” to help India, and India is not cooperating are not helpful.

Over the past 20 years, and especially since Prime Minister Modi came to
power, New Delhi’s deepening strategic ties with Washington represent a
structural and ideological shift in India’s foreign policy away from one of non-

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

alignment to one where India sees the United States as a viable security partner
and strategic hedge against a rising and perceived aggressive China. The inabil-
ity to settle the border dispute contributes enormously to the absence of trust
between China and India. China’s expanding activities in the IOR are within
its sovereign right and frequently contribute to the provision of public goods, as
in the case of the anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia where 51 percent of
the merchant ships escorted by the PLAN have been foreign flagged.86 However,
Beijing so far appears unable—or unwilling—to understand how this is a
cause of concern for New Delhi. On a regular basis, Chinese officials com-
plain about the forward American military presence in East Asia. However,
they do not appear willing to understand how China’s increasing military
footprint in the IOR is causing concern in India. This lack of empathy is in-
creasingly turning into a Chinese self-fulfilling prophecy where China claims
that the United States and its allies and partners are trying to “contain” China.
Chinese behavior in the IOR is providing a convenient excuse for coalitions
hostile to Chinese security interests to garner political support and reinforce
New Delhi’s strategic engagement with Washington.

The research and opinions in this article are the author’s personal assessment and
does not reflect the policy of any government entity, the U.S. Government, or the
Wilson Center.

1. The Economist, “India and China have their first deadly clashes in 45 years,” The Economist,
June 18, 2020. Accessed on January 6, 2021.
2. Author’s interviews with Indian security experts, New Delhi, 2016.
3. M. Taylor Fravel, “Stability in a Secondary Strategic Direction,” in Routledge Handbook of
China-India Relations, ed. by Kanti Bajpai, Selina Ho, and Manjari Chatterjee Miller, (New
York: Routledge, 2020): 169.
4. John Garver, The Protracted Contest, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001): 102.
5. Sonwalkar Prason, “‘Keeping a Close Eye on Chinese Presence in Indian Ocean,’ says
Admiral Lanba,” The Hindustan Times, May 13, 2019. Accessed on January 6, 2021. https://
6. Author’s interviews with Indian security scholars and analysts, New Delhi, 2016.
7. Mark Rosen and Douglas Jackson, The U.S.-India Defense Relationship: Putting the

Christopher K. Colley

Foundational Agreements in Perspective, CNA, Accessed on June 17, 2019. https://www.cna.

org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2016-U-013926-Final2.pdf, 2–3.
8. Ankit Panda, “What the Recently Concluded US-India COMCASA Means,” The Diplomat,
September 9, 2018. Accessed on June 17, 2019.
9. Manoj Joshi, “Building Upon the American Connection,” The Observer Research
Foundation. October 28, 2020. Accessed on November 8, 2020.
10. The Economic Times, “India, U.S. Begin First Tri-Services Exercise,” The Economic Times,
November 13, 2019. Accessed on January 24, 2020.
11. Sumit Ganguly and Chris M. Mason, An Unnatural Partnership? The Future of U.S.-India
Strategic Cooperation, (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College Press, 2019): 16.
12. U.S. Department of Defense, The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, U.S. Department
of Defense, 2019. Accessed on January 2, 2021. chrome-extension://
13. Harsh V. Pant and Abhijan Rej, “Is India Ready for the Indo-Pacific?” The Washington
Quarterly, 41:2 (July 2018): 47–61.
14. Dhruva Jaishankar, “Survey of India’s Strategic Community,” Brookings India,
March 1, 2019. Accessed on January 2, 2021.
15. It needs to be noted that while many Indian economists see China as a strategic challenge,
they also see its economic might as a great opportunity for India. Author’s interviews with
Indian economists, New Delhi, June 2016.
16. Nilanthi Samaranayake, Michael Connell, and Satu Limaye, The Future of U.S.- India Naval
Relations,” CAN, February 2017. Accessed on June 17, 2019.
17. P. Stobdan, “Wither the Indo-US Defense Partnership,” IDSA Comment, June 25, 2018.
Accessed on March 13, 2020.
partnership-pstobdan-250618. 2.
18. Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018): 120.
19. Ibid, 212.
20. K. Alan Kronstadt, and Shayerah I. Akhtar, India-U.S. relations: Issues for Congress,
Congressional Research Service, R44876, June 19, 2017. Accessed on June 4, 2020. https://, 17.
21. The TIV is based on the known unit production costs of a core set of weapons and is
intended to represent the transfer of military resources rather than the financial value of
the transfer. Weapons for which a production cost is not known are compared with core
weapons based on: size and performance characteristics (weight, speed, range and payload);
type of electronics; loading or unloading arrangements; engine; tracks or wheels; armament
and materials; and the year in which the weapon was produced. A weapon that has been

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

in service in another armed force is given a value of 40% of that of a new weapon. A used
weapon that has been significantly refurbished or modified by the supplier before delivery is
given a value of 66% of that of a new weapon.
22. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2020, International
Institute of Strategic Studies 120:1, (2020), 273.
23. Ibid, 271.
24. Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, Arming Without Aiming, (Washington D.C:
Brookings Institution Press. 2010): 91.
25. Ibid, 272, 273, and 276.
26. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, “The China Factor in Indian Ocean Policy of the Modi and Singh
Governments,” in India and China at Sea, ed. by David Brewster, (New Delhi: Oxford
University Press, 2018): 59.
27. Ganguly and Mason, An Unnatural Partnership? The Future of U.S.-India Strategic
Cooperation, 13.
28. Tanvi Madan, “Not Your Mother’s Cold War: India’s Options in US-China Competition,”
The Washington Quarterly, 43:4 (December 2020): 53.
29. Collin Koh Swee Lean, “’New Normal’ in the Indo-Pacific,” in India’s Naval Strategy and
Asian Security, ed. by C. Raja Mohan and Mukherjee C. Anit Mukherjee, (New York:
Routledge, 2015): 138.
30. Chaudhuri, “The China Factor in Indian Ocean Policy of the Modi and Singh Governments,” 62.
31. Author’s interviews with Indian naval scholars, New Delhi, June 2016.
32. Ganguly and Mason, An Unnatural Partnership? The Future of U.S.-India Strategic
Cooperation, 18; Ian Hall, Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy, (Bristol: Bristol
University Press, 2019); 138.
33. Kashish Parpiani and Angad Singh, “Third India-U.S. 2+2 Dialogue: Breaking the
Model on Post-War Model of Bilateral Ties,” Observer Research Foundation, October
26, 2020. Accessed on November 8, 2020.
34. Hu and Wang write “During the standoff at the Galwan Valley, the US actively provided
India with satellite data on the border situation, and made positive inquiries about India’s
military needs, showing “concern” for the “security” of an ally.” Shisheng Hu and Jue Wang,
“The Behavioral Logic behind India’s Tough Foreign Policy toward China,” China Institutes
for Contemporary International Relations, 30:5 (September/October 2020). 59.
35. Abhijnan Rej, “U.S. Ambassador to India Confirms His Country’s Role in Ladakh
Standoff,” The Diplomat. January 6, 2021. Accessed on January 6, 2021. https://thediplomat.
36. John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of
China, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016): 557.
37. For more background on this case please see, Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign
Relations of the People’s Republic of China, 555–556.
38. Phoenix TV, “Sha Zukang Reviewed the Story of the Yinhe Incident: Weak Countries
Have No Diplomacy”. October 13, 2019. 沙祖康回顾银河号事件始末:弱

Christopher K. Colley

39. Author’s interviews with Chinese security scholar, Beijing, fall 2016.
40. Andrew Erickson, “Exhibit 0-2. China’s Primary Naval Order of Battle (Major Combatants),
1985–2030,” in Chinese Naval Shipbuilding, ed. by Andrew Erickson. (Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 2017): xvi.
41. Hu Bo, Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century, (New York: Routledge, 2020), 80.
42. Christopher K. Colley, “China’s Ongoing Debates about India and the United States,” Asia
Dispatches, June 30, 2020. Accessed on January 6, 2021.
43. Andrew Erickson, “Power vs. Distance: China’s Global Maritime Interests and Investments in the
Far Seas,” in China’s Expanding Strategic Ambitions, ed. by Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and
Michael Wills (Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2019): 252.
44. China Daily, “Full text of Hu’s Report at 18th Party Congress,” China Daily,
November 18, 2012. Accessed on February 15, 2020.
45. Michael A. McDevitt, China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, (Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 2020): 68.
50. Dexing Song, “Using the Indian Ocean is China’s 21st Century: An Important Choice for
Strategic Expansion.” Peace and Development, 5 (2014) [宋德星,利用印度洋是21世纪中
51. Bo, Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century, 74.
52. Koh, Collin Swee Lean. “China-India Rivalry at Sea: Capability, trends and challenges,”
Asian Security, 15:1 (November 2018): 5–24.
53. Meng Liang, “The Belt and Road Initiative in the Core Island States of the Indian Ocean
Progress and Resistance,” Peace and Development, 2 (2019) [孟亮,“一带一路”倡议在印度
洋核心岛国的进展及阻力,和平与发展,2019年第2期]: 15–16.
54. Jian Li, Chenwen Wen, and Jin Zui, “Indian Ocean Sea Power Pattern and China Sea Power:
Indian Ocean Expansion,” Pacific Journal 22:5 (May 2014) [李剑,陈文文,金晶,印度
洋海权格局与中国海权的印度洋拓展,太平洋学报,2014年第5期] http://www.cnki.
55. Zhang Feng, “India in China’s Strategic Thought,” in Routledge Handbook of China-India
Relations, ed. by Kanti Bajpai, Selina Ho, and Manjari Chatterjee Miller, (New York:
Routledge, 2020): 147.
56. Author’s discussion with Chinese maritime scholar, Beijing, fall 2019.
57. Feng Liu, “The Recalibration of Chinese Assertiveness: China’s Responses to the Indo-Pacific
Challenge,” International Affairs 96:1 (2020): 19.
58. Author’s interviews with Chinese security scholars, Beijing, 2016–2018.
59. Author’s discussion with Chinese security scholar, Beijing, fall 2019.
60. Xinkai Zeng, “The American Factor in China’s “Indian Ocean Dilemma,” South Asia
Research 2 (2012). [曾信凯,中国“印度洋困境”中的美国因素,南亚研究,2012年第2

The Emerging Great Power Triangle

61. Minwang Lin,. “Trump Visits India, Except for the Huge Political Show, the Trade and
Defense Achievements are Few,” Pengpai Xinhua, February 26, 2020. [林民旺,特朗普访
62. Shida Wang, “The Challenge of India-US Security Cooperation to India’s Tradition
of Strategic Independence,” CIR, 29:3 (May/June 2019) chrome-extension://
1847869381966374066448.pdf, 59.
63. Jun Xiao, “Viewing US-India Security Cooperation in the New Era from the “Main Defense
Partner” Relationship,” South Asian Studies Quarterly, 4:171 (2017) [肖军,从“主要防务伙
伴”关系看新时期的美印安全合作,南亚研究季刊,2017年第4期] http://www.cqvip.
64. Xinhao Wang, “Interview with Zheng Yongnian: “Don’t push India into the arms of the
United States,” July 30, 2020. Accessed on February 18, 2021. [郑永年:不要把印度推向
65. Shisheng Hu and Jue Wang, “The Behavioral Logic behind India’s Tough Foreign Policy
toward China,” China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations. Contemporary
International Relations 30:5 (September/October 2020): 38.
66. Jiadong Zhang and Wei Han, “The United States and India: Selective Strategic Partnership,”
Eurasian System Science Research Association, July 31, 2020. [张家栋,魏涵,美国与印
度:有选择的战略伙伴关系,欧亚系统科学研究会,2020年7月31日] https://www.
67. Pew Research Center, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many
Countries,” Pew Research Center, October 6, 2020.
68. Author’s interviews with Indian security analysts and scholars, New Delhi, summer 2016.
69. It should be noted that in the past China has pledged similar amounts to Pakistan to only
end up delivering a very small percentage of the initial amount. For example, of the 66
billion dollars promised to Pakistan from China from 2001–2011, only 6% was delivered.
See, Andrew Small, “India and the China-Pakistan Relationship,” in Routledge Handbook of
China-India Relations, ed. by Kanti Bajpai, Selina Ho, and Manjari Chatterjee Miller, (New
York: Routledge, 2020): 412.
70. Nectar Gan, “A Tale of Two Bridges: India and China Vying for Influence in the
Maldives,” CNN, November 26, 2020. Accessed on January 5, 2021. https://edition.cnn.
71. Author’s interviews with Indian policy experts, New Delhi, summer 2016.
72. S. Kalyanaraman, “The China-India-US Triangle: Changing Balance of Power and a New
Cold War,” IDSA Comment, September 21, 2020. Accessed on November 15, 2020. https://
73. It is common to hear concerns of Chinese hegemony among Indian policy analysts. Author’s
interviews in New Delhi, 2016.
74. Author’s discussion with Chinese security scholar. Beijing, 2019.

Christopher K. Colley

75. Small, “India and the China-Pakistan Relationship,” 414.

76. James Griffiths, “China Ready to Fight ‘Bloody Battle’ Against Enemies, Xi Says in Speech.”
CNN, March 20, 2018. Accessed on January 6, 2021.
77. Rajesh Basrur, “India and Nuclear Deterrence,” In New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy,
ed. by Harsh V. Pant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 229.
78. Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arxan Tarapore, “Asymmetric but Uneven,” in Routledge
Handbook of China-India Relations, ed. by Kanti Bajpai, Selina Ho, and Manjari Chatterjee
Miller, (New York: Routledge, 2020).
79. Fravel, “Stability in a Secondary Strategic Direction,” 176.
80. Xiaoyu Pu, “Ambivalent Accommodation: Status Signaling of a Rising India and China’s
Response,” International Affairs 93:1 (2017): 161.
81. Kanti Bajpa, “Narendra Modi’s Pakistan and China Policy: Assertive Bilateral Diplomacy,
Active Coalition Diplomacy,” International Affairs 93:1 (2017): 70.
82. Ganguly and Mason, An Unnatural Partnership? The Future of U.S.-India Strategic
Cooperation, 22.
83. Yun Sun, “China and South Asia Crisis Management in the Era of Great Power
Competition,” Stimson Center, Policy Brief No. 85, August 2020. Accessed on November
10, 2020. chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/https://www.
84. John Garver, “Limitations on China’s Ability to Understand Indian Apprehensions about
China’s Rise as a Naval Power,” in India and China at Sea, ed. by David Brewster (New Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 2018): 76.
85. Ganguly and Mason, An Unnatural Partnership? The Future of U.S.-India Strategic
Cooperation, 50.
86. Xinhua, “Chinese Naval Fleets Escort 3,400 Foreign Ships Over Past 10 Years,” Xinhua,
January 1, 2019. Accessed on January 11, 2020.


The “New Strategic

Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit
of Influence in the Arctic
and Antarctica

Rush Doshi is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow.

Rush Doshi

This project focuses on the varied fringes of international order that China
now groups together as “new frontiers”: space, the poles, and the deep sea.
These ungoverned or under-governed spaces, once somewhat walled off from
serious great power competition by technological limitations and U.S.-backed
norms, are seen in Beijing and increasingly Washington as sites for sovereignty
claims and rivalry and now risk being transformed from a global commons
into contested spaces. If successfully and cost-effectively exploited, these do-
mains have the potential to transform the global balance of power—just as
past frontier scrambles once did. Together, they constitute an important test
case for whether the rise of great power competition will overwhelm the ne-
cessity of rules-based governance. In particular, this project closely examines
China’s interest in the polar regions, its activism in the Antarctic and Arctic,
and its policy investments in becoming a “polar great power.” Ultimately, it
finds that China, like many great powers, views these frontiers as sites for sov-
ereignty claims and rivalry in an era of great power competition, a prospect
with significant implications for the United States and global governance.

Policy Recommendations:
● The United States needs to redouble its investment in polar diplomacy
and institutions to better shape rules and norms in directions that reduce
competition in what should remain a global commons.

● The United States should call attention to instances of Chinese coercion

against Arctic and Antarctic states, including Australia, Canada,
Sweden, and in the past, Norway. It should clearly link that coercion
to reduced U.S. and allied and partner support for China’s Arctic and
Antarctic activities.

● The United States should remain vigilant about the possibility that Chinese
infrastructure investments within the poles could be dual-use.

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

“At present, Antarctica is the last piece of the earth with abundant resources.
Undeveloped pure land. Therefore, we must hold high the banner of scientific
research, find a foothold in Antarctica, and take root.”
—Yang Huigen, then Deputy Director of the Polar Research Institute of China

“I have said on many occasions that China’s population accounts for one-
fifth of the world’s population, so can’t we get a fifth of the interests in the
Antarctic and Arctic?”
—Yin Zhuo, Retired Rear Admiral and CPPCC Member

In the last few years, China has focused more intently on the varied fringes
of international order that it often groups together as “new strategic fron-
tiers” [战略新疆域]: space, the poles, and the deep sea. These ungoverned or
under-governed spaces, once somewhat walled off from serious great power
competition by technological limitations and U.S.-backed norms, are seen in
Beijing as sites for sovereignty claims and rivalry and now risk being trans-
formed from a global commons into contested spaces.1
If successfully and cost-effectively exploited—by no means an easy task—
the poles, the deep sea, and space have the potential to one day transform the
global balance of power just as past frontier scrambles once did. Together, they
constitute an important test case for whether the rise of great power competi-
tion will overwhelm the necessity of rules-based governance.
The so-called “new strategic frontiers” have grown more important in the
wake of three trends: (1) China’s increasing ambitions across them; (2) tech-
nological innovation that makes exploitation increasingly feasible; and (3)
perceived U.S. withdrawal, which has weakened rules-based approaches.
The “new strategic frontiers,” like past frontiers, may prove a mirage that
cannot be exploited in any cost-effective way. Even so, its lure and the com-
petitive dynamics between leading states can induce a scramble for influence
across them.
This paper briefly discusses the idea of a “frontier” in historical and con-
temporary context. It then discusses China’s frontier discourse and efforts at
the poles—both the Arctic and Antarctica.

Rush Doshi

I. The “Frontier” in Global Politics

The lure of a “frontier”—an unclaimed land that can reshape global power—
has long been a powerful driver of state behavior, but it has rarely received due
study in international relations literature despite its manifest impact.

The “Frontier” in Historical Context

European colonizers came to see the Western hemisphere as a frontier that
could reshape the European balance of power. Similarly, the expansion of the
early United States westward and Russia eastward in the nineteenth century
led envious European colonial powers like France and Germany to seek their
own frontiers in Africa or Eastern Europe, seeing it as essential to their coun-
try’s power and status—often with the American West as explicit inspiration.
In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville believed that coun-
tries without frontiers were fated to reach “their natural limits” and either
“stopped” or would “continue to advance with extreme difficulty.” He looked
enviously on the expanding United States and Russia, which seemed to him
“to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the
globe.” To Tocqueville, the solution was clear: Urging the French colonization
of North Africa, he wrote, “I have no doubt that we can raise on the coast of
Africa a great monument to the glory of our country.”2
A few decades later, post-unification Germany also felt the pangs of having
missed out on American expansion. “If we had had the option 200 years ago,
we too would have preferred to carve a New Germany out of North America,”
remarked the influential German geographer Friedrich Ratzel at a major politi-
cal conclave in 1884.3 “However, today we do not have this choice and it would
be foolish to turn down black bread [i.e., other continents] just because we did
not reach the white bread [i.e., North America] in time.” These ideas persisted
decades later, this time with a focus on lands to Germany’s east. Adolf Hitler de-
clared in 1941 that “our Volga must be the Mississippi,” envisioning a continental
German empire that would create its own frontier in the Slavic-occupied East.4 
The line between frontier, global commons, or another’s legitimate lands
can be thin, and the social construction of a “frontier” and fears others might
claim it first has often overwhelmed reality, driving the behavior of states even
when such behavior was not cost-effective. Now, the idea of a “frontier” has
returned to politics.

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

The “Frontier” in Contemporary Context

The fact that French and German thinkers—as well as liberals and fascists
alike—were all animated by the idea of a frontier is powerful evidence that
state interest in frontiers is hardly unusual and should be unsurprising, in-
cluding in China’s case. Both the United States and Russia pursued a space
race during the Cold War, and even today, other powers that feel that they
missed out on past scrambles are interested in the “new frontiers.” For exam-
ple, several of the Indian navy’s doctrinal and strategy texts of the last decade
lumps together the deep sea and the polar regions as unorganized domains for
exploitation.5 Chinese authors too have a sense of having missed out on past
scrambles and are determined not to miss the next one.
At the same time, advances in robotics, rocketry, submersibles, materi-
als science, and other areas have created expectations that these domains
could become exploitable in two to three decades. In space, launch costs are
expected to fall so much over the next decade that they will be three orders
of magnitude lower than they were the year 2000, permitting greater exploi-
tation of the earth’s orbit and possibly bodies farther afield.6 In the Arctic,
global warming, next-generation nuclear-powered icebreakers, and melting
permafrost may produce navigable waterways and networks of mines, military
bases, and oil and gas facilities. In the Antarctic, tens of thousands of lakes
and subsurface rivers are breaking apart ice sheets and could open parts of the
continent to extraction—particularly given advances in mining technology.7
And in the deep sea, innovations in robotics, drilling and riser systems, deep
sea submersibles, and undersea stations may eventually permit remote extrac-
tion of rare earths or other minerals found in rich nodules on the sea floor.8
Whether exaggerated or real, these visions of exploitation are shaping state
behavior—including China’s.
Another factor accelerating competition in the frontier is the fact that the
United States has underinvested in the regimes that govern these spaces and
in the capabilities needed to assert its own interests across them. It was, by
contrast, American attentiveness that helped keep these regions a global com-
mons in the last century. Indeed, even at the height of its postwar powers, the
United States did not assert sovereignty over the poles, seabed, or space—opt-
ing instead for rules-based approaches. Agreements like the Antarctic Treaty,
the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, and the UN Convention on

Rush Doshi

Law of the Seas—backed in part by U.S. power and restraint—helped bound

competition in the global commons.
Over recent decades, however, the United States has disengaged. It with-
drew from its main Arctic airbase; let its Antarctic facilities deteriorate; al-
lowed its icebreaker fleet to fall to one ship; permitted Chinese purchases of
U.S. drilling, rocketry, and submersible technology; privatized much of its
space program and was left reliant on foreign companies for launch; and failed
to ratify UNCLOS, limiting its ability to secure Arctic interests or shape sea-
bed mining. Even now, it lacks a national strategy across any of these three
domains—in sharp contrast to Beijing.

China’s Frontier Ambitions

China, by contrast, has openly broadcast its ambitions in space, the poles, and
the deep sea. In recent years, these “new frontiers” have repeatedly appeared
in Chinese theoretical texts, diplomatic speeches, and even the country’s new
National Security Law—suggesting a centralized and high-level plan to tar-
get them.9 As one legislator who supported including the frontiers into law
declared: “there is no room for dispute, compromise, or interference” over
China’s interests, including in space, the deep sea, and the poles.10 In January
2017, President Xi grouped these three specific domains together—along with
the internet—as the “new frontiers” that could yet prove a “wrestling ground
for competition.”11
To match this rhetoric, China has announced multi-decade plans for each
of these domains, with aspirations to become a “polar great power” by 2030
and “world-leading space power” by 2045. Bureaucratic restructuring, massive
public investment, technology acquisition, and constant attention in China’s
five-year plans have made these aspirations increasingly credible.12
We turn now to consider China’s discourse and its efforts in one of these
three domains—the poles— focusing on China’s interests in both the Arctic
and Antarctic.

II. China’s Polar Institutions and Discourse

China’s interest in the Arctic and Antarctic emerged in the 1980s. Over the
ensuing years, China’s polar discourse and its polar capabilities have evolved

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

significantly. Despite lacking any polar proximity, China’s polar capabilities

are now considered some of the world’s strongest and in line with the great
power status it seeks.13

China’s Polar Planning and Institutions

In a speech on China’s long-term planning for polar strategy given by State
Oceanic Administration Director Liu Cigui in 2014, China’s polar efforts
were divided into three main periods.14
The first stage, from 1980–2000, was “the initial preparation stage.” In this
period, which started after the dawn of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening,
China began to dispatch its first scientists to the poles, acquired an icebreaker
from Ukraine, built some of its first stations in Antarctica, and joined relevant
multilateral treaties.15
The second stage, from 2000–2015, was the “development stage.” In this
period, China significantly increased its polar capacity by building more sta-
tions at the poles, building its first domestic icebreaker, launching more ex-
peditions, investing polar fixed-wing aircraft and autonomous platforms,
and dramatically increased its political role in the region—joining the Arctic
Council as an observer significantly expanding its Antarctic footprint.16
The third stage is to span from 2015–2030, and is the “polar great power
stage.” Party leaders like Xi Jinping and leading polar figures like Liu Cigui
say China is at “the starting point of a new historical stage towards the con-
struction of a polar great power [极地强国].”17 The concept likely includes
but also transcends hard power, and this era is to bring a more significant
Chinese Arctic presence, including even more expeditions, more stations, new
fixed-wing aircraft and icebreakers, more autonomous capabilities, a “polar
survey fleet,” more technological investment, a Polar Silk Road, greater efforts
to safeguard China’s polar rights and interests, and more military deploy-
ments into the region.18
Multiple parts of the Party and state will play a role in carrying out this
effort—including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Liberation
Army. Among the most important is the former State Oceanic Administration
(SOA), reconstituted and now subsumed by China’s Ministry of Natural
Resources. Within this structure sits most of China’s polar infrastructure and
expertise, including the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), which was

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established in 1989 to coordinate and oversee China’s Arctic and Antarctic

research under the State Oceanic Administration and was later upgraded into
an institute and then a center to reflect its growing stature.19
Known as the “business center” of China’s polar expeditions, the PRIC
manages the Xuelong icebreaker, in addition to various Chinese polar stations
in the Arctic and Antarctica.20 It is not simply involved in the minutiae of
Arctic science, it also has a strategic purpose. In 2009, the PRIC established
its Strategic Studies Division, which “takes the responsibilities of the tracing
and analysis of the polar circumstances, and the research on the strategic is-
sues in the domains of polar politics, economy, science & technology, as well
as security.” 21 It is expected to “provide advices for the national decision-mak-
ing related to the Polar Regions and build the brand of an influential think-
tank with regard to the polar strategic studies.”22
Other bodies also play a role in Arctic policy. The Chinese Advisory
Committee for Polar Research [中国极地考察咨询委员会] “is charged
with advising the Chinese leadership and bureaucracy on polar matters, or-
ganizing scholarly conferences on polar themes, and evaluating China’s polar
program and its outcomes.”23 The China Arctic and Antarctic Administration
(CAA) [国家海洋局极地考察办公室] oversees China’s polar expeditions
and membership in regional organizations.24

Chinese Discourse on Polar Competition

As early as 2011, Chinese source began referring to the polar regions as a “new
frontier” [新疆域], with many Chinese scholars noting that such frontiers
are becoming areas of competition between the major powers.25 In 2015, a
group of prominent Chinese universities and think tanks studying the Arctic
released the first Arctic Region Development Report [北极地区发展报告],
which argued that “the polar region has become an important part of China’s
‘strategic new frontier.’”26 In addition, it is clear that China wishes to help
set rules across the frontiers. For example, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan stated
that China “will take an active role in formulating international rules in areas
such as the internet, the deep sea, the polar regions, and space.”27 As Wang
Chuanxing, a polar expert at Tongji University noted, “Polar regions, to-
gether with the oceans, the internet and space exploration, have become new
but strategic areas where China is seeking to develop in the future.”28

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

Discussions of the “new frontiers,” or what China calls “global public

spaces” or “new strategic spaces,” also abound in other works, including its
2013 Science of Military Strategy. That document warns that “new geopoliti-
cal struggles surrounding the control of oceans, polar regions, space, inter-
net, and other global public spaces will become fierce and will surely have a
major and far-reaching impact on the military strategies of major powers.”29
It laments that, “some developed countries are using their own advantages to
try to monopolize and control international public spaces, creating obstacles
for latecomers to enter and use them.” Accordingly, as competition intensi-
fies, military instruments will be important: “In the scramble for new stra-
tegic spaces, military preparation and pre-positioning is important not only
for guaranteeing a country’s free use of international public spaces, it is also
an important measure to fight for the new commanding heights of military
strategy, and it has received great attention and attention from major coun-
tries in the world.”30
China also sees these regions as houses of enormous resources, and it be-
lieves that scientific investments and research stations might help lay the foun-
dation for future resource claims. Yang Huigen, one of China’s top Polar offi-
cials who previously served as Deputy Director of the Polar Research Institute
of China before being promoted to director [中国极地研究中心] once said,
“according to the World Antarctic Mineral Resources Management Treaty,
the share of resources that countries can enjoy when Antarctica can be devel-
oped will be determined by their contribution to the Antarctic scientific in-
vestigations and undertakings.”31 Yang was unambiguous about how doing so
would provide China long-term benefits as a global commons was converted
into something more exploitable by nation states: “At present, Antarctica is
the last piece of the earth with abundant resources. Undeveloped pure land.
Therefore, we must hold high the banner of scientific research, find a foothold
in Antarctica, and take root.” 32 Grouping together the very same domains
that would later constitute the “new strategic frontiers,” Yang observed that
“the three most competitive resource treasures in the world are the seabed,
the moon, and Antarctica. In order to gain a greater say in the Antarctic issue,
some small countries are also doing everything possible to set up stations in
Antarctica to ‘plant flags.’ It can be said that the loss of the scientific research
base in Antarctica means the loss of space for resource development.”33

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Similarly, another prominent Chinese polar scholar who also served in a se-
nior position at the State Oceanic Administration said: “Under the premise of
international scientific research cooperation in compliance with the Antarctic
Treaty, we must safeguard our national interests. The ability to build more sci-
entific research stations...strengthens China’s right to speak in international
Antarctic affairs.”34
In the Arctic too, the idea that China has significant resource interests is
common. In 2010, on the sidelines of a major Chinese political conclave often
referred to as the “Two Sessions,” retired Chinese naval Rear Admiral Yin
Zhou, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,
made a remarkably candid set of statements about China’s Arctic ambitions.
“I have said on many occasions that China’s population accounts for one-
fifth of the world’s population, so can’t we get a fifth of the interests in the
Antarctic and Arctic?” Yin asked. The Arctic and the Antarctic are “very rich
in various resources,” he noted, and their “sea lanes will also be important in
the future.” China will have to struggle hard to protect its interests: “if you do
not defend it, do not fight for it, then you have no say….We cannot leave it all
to others; the Chinese people have rights there.”35
Others echo these sentiments, noting that scientific engagement in the
Arctic can help serve China’s interests. One of China’s prominent Arctic
scholars, Professor Guo Peiqing of Ocean University of China, asserts that
a country’s level of scientific research activity in the Arctic “directly deter-
mines its ‘right to speak’ [话语权] in Arctic affairs.”36 Government officials
make similar points. During a visit to the Xuelong icebreaker in Chile, Wan
Gan, the then Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative
Conference, also emphasized that “conducting scientific investigations in
‘new frontiers’ polar regions…contributes to China’s transformation
from a maritime large country to a maritime great power.”37 At a meeting of
the China Advisory Committee for Polar Research (CACPR), established in
1994 with the approval of the Ministry of Science and Technology and part of
the State Oceanic Administration, then Deputy Director of the State Oceanic
Administration Chen Lianzeng declared, “The committee members believe
that China’s polar scientific investigations and undertaking are a window that
reflects national power and displays the image of a great power, and it is of
great significance [to China].”38

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

Becoming a Polar Great Power

Given China’s interest in the region, Beijing takes seriously its goal of be-
coming a “polar great power” in the next decade. This objective is central to
China’s Arctic policy, has been invoked by Xi Jinping, and has even been sub-
tly tied to various Chinese five-year plans.39
The concept was elevated in 2014, when Xi Jinping gave an address on
China’s Xuelong icebreaker while it was docked in Hobart, Australia. The
speech, Anne-Marie Brady notes, was “a signal to the entire Chinese political
system that polar affairs had moved up the policy agenda.”40 In it, Xi stressed
that “this is a critical period when our country is moving from a large polar
country to a polar great power.”41 He also noted that “the profoundly chang-
ing international situation requires us to better carry out polar work.”42 The
change that most concerned Xi was intensifying competition within the
Arctic. He warned that “the geopolitics of the Arctic and its economic rela-
tions with other regions of the world are undergoing significant changes,”
and that other countries were introducing their own “strategic measures”
to expand their influence in the poles.43 “Given this situation,” he argued,
“China urgently needed to…enter the ranks of the world’s polar great pow-
ers” with renewed emphasis on science, economics, and the defense of China’s
polar rights.44
This speech, and others that call for China to become a polar great
power, have guided much of China’s polar work. Indeed, State Oceanic
Administration officials have repeatedly encouraged staff to study that
speech.45 State Oceanic Administration Director Liu Cigui put it, “We must
thoroughly study the spirit of President Xi Jinping’s important instructions,
and continue to make new and greater contributions to the building into
a polar great power and a maritime great power.”46 Liu emphasized the sig-
nificant environmental and geopolitical changes in the Arctic and stressed
China’s need to “strengthen strategic research, clarify strategic goals, formu-
late national polar policies and long-term development plans, and improve
polar work mechanisms” while focusing on its goal of becoming “a maritime
and polar power” during the 13th Five-Year Plan period.47 Others have tied
this goal to China’s 12th Five-Year Plan. What is clear then is that China’s
ambition to be a polar great power dates back at least a decade, has found
expression in long-term planning documents, and was accelerated around

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2014 when it was championed for the first time by Xi—and yet it is left out of
China’s most prominent foreign-facing texts.

III. China’s Polar Activism

China’s polar ambitions have been accompanied by a set of efforts to advance its
interests across a wide range of domains in both the Antarctic and the Arctic.

China’s Antarctic Activism

China’s interests in Antarctica are clearly long-term, in part because the con-
tinent will remain difficult to exploit for years to come. The continent’s high
winds, freezing temperatures, and massive ice sheets—believed to be a mile
thick in some places—make mining virtually impossible at present. Global
warming, however, may open up parts of the continent before 2049. Warming
temperatures have caused vast lakes and pools of water to form on the ice
sheets and under them, breaking them in the process, and more of the region
may become exposed rock. It is also possible that advances in drilling tech-
niques will facilitate resource exploitation. Mining aside, the region is home
to rich fish stocks.
Despite the difficulty of exploiting the Antarctic, the region has at times
been subject to great power competition. In the 19th and early 20th centu-
ries, there was a brief scramble for parts of Antarctica even though the con-
tinent had little economic potential. British, French, German, Argentinian,
Chilean, and Russian military personnel moved southward to seize relevant
islands and control access to the continent. That competition was decisively
halted with the Antarctic Treaty System established by the United States dur-
ing the 1960s. This complex web of rules and treaties temporarily suspended
the question of sovereignty. It held scientific research as the principal purpose
of human engagement in Antarctica, and it permits only countries with sci-
entific research facilities on the continent to vote on questions of the region’s
governance. In 1998, the system expanded to include the Madrid Protocol, an
agreement that forbade mineral exploitation for fifty years, with states given
the option to revisit the issue in 2048.
In the 1980s, China built two Antarctic stations which it gradually ex-
panded over subsequent years. Before it opened its first Antarctic station in

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

1985, China did not have the “right to speak” on Antarctic affairs. But soon
thereafter, Beijing became an active participant in Antarctic governance.
In the last decade, China has significantly expanded its Antarctic foot-
print. It built three facilities in less than ten years—an unprecedented accel-
eration leaving China only one facility fewer than the United States.48 And as
discussed earlier, China believes that these stations could strengthen its sover-
eignty claims to various parts of the coast and interior. China has also hosted
the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing.49
In addition to facilities, China’s investments in the same icebreakers and
polar planes valuable in the Arctic are similarly proving invaluable in the
Antarctic. A few years ago, China’s State Oceanic Administration reported
that these investments had matured, providing China “fully self-sufficient
land, sea, and air capabilities at the poles.”50 In 2014, China’s Xuelong ice-
breaker rescued a Russian research vessel stuck in Antarctic waters—an inci-
dent that illustrates better than any other how China has caught up to previ-
ous leaders in the region.51 China and Australia also signed a five-year contract
allowing Chinese vessels and aircraft to resupply and dock in Tasmania en
route to Antarctica. As in the Arctic, China’s distance from the Antarctic re-
quires it to seek out nearby partners.
China’s proactive policy in the Antarctic seems motivated by a deter-
mination not to be left out of Antarctica’s future. Resource exploitation is
almost certainly a priority. According to Anne-Marie Brady, in 2014, the
Polar Research Institute of China—the state’s official agency for all polar
affairs, and the operator of China’s icebreakers—worked with the Chinese
Company Laurel Industrial to produce a movie called Antarctica 2049.52 The
documentary looked to the 100th year of the PRC’s founding, and predicted
that by then “humanity will open up a new area of mineral resource exploita-
tion” in the region.

China’s Arctic Activism

China is far more active in the Arctic than it is in Antarctica. China has
worked hard to engage the region—particularly given that it lacks proximity
to it. Part of this effort has involved branding itself as a “near-Arctic state” [近
北极国家]. The concept appeared as early as 2015 and then found its highest
expression in 2018, when China released its Arctic White Paper which said

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China was a “Near-Arctic State” because it is directly affected by the natural

conditions of the region.53
Beyond questions of branding and image, China has made several efforts to
increase its Arctic influence. At the political level, China has sent thirty-three
high-level figures—at the General Secretary, Premier, Vice President, Foreign
Ministry Spokesman, and Defense Minister levels—to visit the Arctic coun-
tries over the last twenty years (excluding the United States and Russia).54
Beijing lobbied heavily to become an Arctic Council observer too, became a
strong presence at many other regional Track II fora, and launched its own
diplomatic and Track II regional efforts, including a China-Russia Arctic
Forum and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center, to deepen relations
with governments and sub-national actors.
In recent years, China’s military profile in the Arctic has increased too.
China has dispatched naval vessels to the Arctic on two occasions, including
to Alaska and later to Denmark, Sweden, and Finland for goodwill visits.55 It
has built its first indigenously produced icebreaker, has plans for more conven-
tional heavy icebreakers, and it is considering investments in nuclear-powered
icebreakers too.56
China’s scientific activities in the Arctic are particularly noteworthy.
Some give it greater operational experience and access. For example, China
has sent roughly ten scientific expeditions into the region on its Xuelong
icebreaker, generally with more than 100 crew members on each.57 China
has also established science and satellite facilities in Norway, Iceland, and
Sweden while pursuing additional facilities in Canada and Greenland—with
its facility in Norway able to berth more than two dozen individuals and
provide resupply.58 Finally, China has used the Arctic as a testing ground for
new capabilities whether related to satellites coverage, fixed-wing aircraft,
autonomous underwater gliders, buoys, and even an “unmanned ice station”
configured for research.59
China’s economic activism has received considerable attention. Chinese
entities have been involved in dozens of mining and energy projects across
the main Arctic states, with varying degrees of success. Of particular note are
China’s infrastructure projects, including some affiliated with its “Polar Silk
Road” concept—a spinoff from its broader Belt and Road Initiative. A few of
these projects appear to possibly be dual-use and, lacking any obvious economic

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

purpose, are believed to be strategically motivated. These include efforts by a

former Chinese propaganda official who later became a billionaire to purchase
250 square kilometers of Iceland to build a golf course and airfield in an area
where golf cannot be played. He later attempted to buy 200 square kilometers
of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Chinese companies have also sought to pur-
chase an old naval base in Greenland; to build three airports in Greenland; to
build Scandinavia’s largest port in Sweden; to acquire (successfully) a Swedish
submarine base; to link Finland and the wider Arctic to China through rail;
and to do the same with a major port and railway in Arkhangelsk in Russia. 60

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

This paper focused on China’s interests in the poles, but Beijing’s cultivation
of the “new strategic frontiers” by its own admission expands beyond them to
other domains, including space and the deep sea. These interests are in some
sense unsurprising—great powers have long pursued a “frontier” even when
the possibility of resource extraction was overstated. China’s texts, its five-year
plans, its ambitions to become a “polar great power,” and its commitment of
resources across multiple domains—military, diplomatic, scientific, and eco-
nomic—all suggest its seriousness of purpose.

U.S. policy in the period ahead should involve the following components:
First, the United States needs to redouble its investment in polar diplomacy
and institutions—the better to shape rules and norms in directions that re-
duce competition in what should remain a global commons. At the state level,
this requires rebuilding ties with allies and partners in the Arctic and in the
key states party to Antarctic regimes. At the institutional level, it will require
ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas and building coalitions
to sustain rules-based governance in the poles.
Second, the United States should call attention to instances of Chinese
coercion against Arctic and Antarctic states, including Australia, Canada,
Sweden, and, in the past, Norway. It should clearly link that coercion to re-
duced U.S. and allied and partner support for China’s Arctic and Antarctic
activities. As a state relatively distant from the poles, China lacks the ability to
sustain regional access without the support of regional states, and its coercion
should be linked to the loss of those privileges.

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Third, the United States needs to reinvest in its own polar capabilities.
Increased investment in icebreakers is essential, especially as the U.S. ice-
breaker fleet now falling far behind China’s.
Finally, the United States should remain vigilant about the possibility
that Chinese infrastructure investments within the poles could be dual-use.
China’s projects in the Indian Ocean region—from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to
Cambodia—were often discussed in secondary Chinese sources as explicitly
dual-use, and a similar approach seems to have been pursued with less suc-
cess and enthusiasm in the Arctic. At times, this will require multilateraliz-
ing Chinese investments to reduce the possibility of coercion, dependence, or
dual-use activities; at others, it will require providing alternatives.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

1. I am grateful to the talented Alexis Dale-Huang for assistance with some of the research on
China’s Arctic activities.
2. Alexis De Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery, trans. Jennifer Pitts (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
3. De Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery; Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction:
The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin Books, 2008); Jens-Uwe
Guettel, German Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism and the United States, 1776–1945
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
4. De Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery; Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The
Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy; Guettel, German Expansionism, Imperial
Liberalism and the United States, 1776–1945.
5. Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, India’s Modern Maritime Military
Strategy (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, 2007), 15;
Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine, INBR-8
(New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, 2004). Integrated
Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine, INBR-8 (Integrated
Headquarters, Ministry of Defense—Navy, 2009).
6. Patrick Cronin, “Securing the High Ground in Outer Space,” The National Interest, November
30, 2019,
7. Madeline Stone, “How Antarctica Is Melting from Above and Below,” National Geographic,
October 9, 2019,
melting-above-below-ice-sheet/; Karen E. Alley, “Troughs Develed in Ice-Stream Shear Margins

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

Precondition Ice Shelves for Ocean-Driven Breakup,” Science Advances 5, no. 10 (2019).
8. Wil S. Hylton, “History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin,” The Atlantic, 2020,
9. See “National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国国家安
全法]” (2015),;
“National Security Law,” China Law Translate, July 1, 2015, https://www.chinalawtranslate.
10. “China Adopts New National Security Law,” Xinhua, July 1, 2015,
11. Xi Jinping, “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind”
(Palais des Nations at the United Nations in Geneva, Geneva, January 23, 2017), http://
12. Li Cigui [刘赐贵], “Forge Ahead and Work Hard to Move from a Polar Great Power
to a Polar Strong Country [开拓进取 奋勇拼搏 从极地大国迈向极地强国],” State
Oceanic Administration [国家海洋局], November 19, 2014,
html; Ma Chi, “China Aims to Be a World-Leading Space Power by 2045,” China Daily,
November 17, 2017, China Aims to be a World-Leading Space Power by 2045.
13. Linda Jakobson and Jingchao Peng, “China’s Arctic Aspirations,” (Stockholm: Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute, November 2012), 1,
14. Li Cigui [刘赐贵], “Forge Ahead and Work Hard to Move from a Polar Great Power to a
Polar Strong Country [开拓进取 奋勇拼搏 从极地大国迈向极地强国].”
15. Li Cigui [刘赐贵].
16. Li Cigui [刘赐贵].
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长:从极地大国迈向极地强国].”The Chinese Central Government’s Official Web
Portal [中央政府门户网站], November 19, 2014.
18. “Director of the Oceanic Bureau: From a polar power to a polar superpower [海洋局局
长:从极地大国迈向极地强国].”The Chinese Central Government’s Official Web
Portal [中央政府门户网站], November 19, 2014.
19. See the website for the Polar Research Institute here:
aspx?c=29. Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Rise in Antarctica?” Asian Survey 50, no. 4 (2010):
759–785. In 2003, the Chinese name of the PRIC changed from the Polar Research Institute
[中国基地研究所] to the Polar Research Center [中国基地研究中心]. According to Anne-
Marie Brady, “The choice of name was significant, demonstrating that China was not only
interested in investigating Antarctic science but would now expand to include the Arctic.”
20. See the website for the Polar Research Institute here:
aspx?c=29. Anne-Marie Brady also writes: “The Polar Research Institute has three main
tasks: (1) supervising China’s polar research; (2) organizing China’s polar expeditions; and (3)
arranging the logistics for the expeditions, which includes managing China’s polar bases and

Rush Doshi

maintaining the Chinese icebreaker, Xuelong (Ice Dragon).” See Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s
Rise in Antarctica?” Asian Survey 50, no. 4 (2010): 759–785.
21. Brady, “China’s Rise in Antarctica?,” Asian Survey 50, no. 4 (2010): 759–785.
22. See the CNARC website here:
23. Brady, “China’s Rise in Antarctica?,” Asian Survey 50, no. 4 (2010): 759–785.
24. Ibid, 759–785.
25. For an example, see “Cooperation to Avoid Disaster [合作才能避免失序],” Zhonggongwang
[中工网], May 12, 2014,
shtml. This piece was written by Tang Yongsheng, the Executive Deputy Director of National
Defense University’s Strategic Research Institute.
26. “‘Arctic Region Development Report (2014)’ Released at Oceanic University of China [《北
极地区发展报告(2014)》在中国海洋大学发布],” Polar and Ocean Portal [北极与海
洋门户], September 7, 2015,; Guo Peiqing [
郭培清], “A Closer Look at the Arctic, China’s Strategic New Frontier [北极是中国战略
新疆域 外国对华恶意解读减少],” Huanqiu Wang [环球网], September 18, 2015, https://
27. “The 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of
China (2016–2020)” (Beijing: Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 2016),
Also see Heljar Havnes and Johan Martin Seland, “The Increasing Security Focus in China’s
Arctic Policy,” The Arctic Institute, July 16, 2019,
28. Laura Zhou, “Slowly but Surely, China Is Carving a Foothold through the Arctic,”
South China Morning Post, October 15, 2017,
29. Military Strategic Research Department of the Academy of Military Science [军事科学院
军事战略研究部], The Science of Military Strategy [战略学 (2013年版)] (Beijing: Military
Science Press [军事科学出版社], 2013), 16,
30. Military Strategic Research Department of the Academy of Military Science [军事科学院军
事战略研究部], 74.
31. “Our Reporter Interviewed Dr. Yang Huigen, Deputy Director of the China Polar Research
Center, My Country Is Prearing for a Global Expedition [本报记者专访中国极地研究中
心副主任杨惠根博士我国酝酿环球考察],” Sina [新闻中心], December 5, 2005, http://
32. “Our Reporter Interviewed Dr. Yang Huigen, Deputy Director of the China Polar Research
Center, My Country Is Preparing for a Global Expedition [本报记者专访中国极地研究中
33. “Our Reporter Interviewed Dr. Yang Huigen, Deputy Director of the China Polar Research
Center, My Country Is Preparing for a Global Expedition [本报记者专访中国极地研究中
34. Guo Yunqing [郭云青], “Exploring the Location of China’s New Antarctic Station [探秘中
国南极新站选址],” People’s Daily [人民日报], January 14, 2013,

The “New Strategic Frontiers”: China’s Pursuit of Influence in the Arctic and Antarctica

35. “Yin Zhuo: U.S. Maritime Hegemony Threatens China’s Security [尹卓:美国海上霸权威
胁中国安全],” China Internet Information Center [中国网], March 8, 2010, http://www.
36. Guo Peiqing [郭培清], “Guo Peiqing: China Has No Land in the Arctic, but It Has Benefits
[郭培清: 中国在北极没土地,但有利益],” Huanqiu Wang [环球网], April 29, 2016,
37. “Continuously Improve the Comprehensive Ability of Antarctic Scientific Examination [不
断提升南极科考综合能力],” People’s Daily [人民日报], January 21, 2017, http://qh.people.
38. “Deputy Director Chen Lianzeng Presided over the 13th Meeting of the China Polar
Expedition Advisory Committee and Delivered a Speech [陈连增副局长主持中国极地考
察工作咨询委员会第13次会议并讲话],” Huaxia [华夏经纬网], June 14, 2011, http://
39. “Fourth Discussion on the In-Depth Study and Implementation of the Spirit of Chairman
Xi Jinping’s Important Speech [四论深入学习贯彻习近平主席重要讲话精神],” China
Ocean News [中国海洋报], November 27, 2014, http://webcache.googleusercontent.
html+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us. “Director of the Oceanic Bureau: From a Polar
Power to a Polar Superpower [海洋局局长:从极地大国迈向极地强国],” The Chinese
Central Government’s Official Web Portal [中央政府门户网站], November 19, 2014,
40. Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson
Center Press, 2017), 3.
41. “Second Discussion on the In-Depth Study and Implementation of the Spirit of Chairman
Xi Jinping’s Important Speech [二论深入学习贯彻习近平主席重要讲话精神],”
China Ocean News [中国海洋报], November 25, 2014,
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid.
45. “Director of the Bureau of Oceanography: Study and Implement the Spirit of Chairman Xi
Jinping’s Important Instructions [海洋局局长:学习贯彻习近平主席重要指示精神],”
Government of China [中华人民共和国中央人民政府], November 20, 2014, http://www.
46. “Director of the Bureau of Oceanography: Study and Implement the Spirit of Chairman Xi
Jinping’s Important Instructions [海洋局局长:学习贯彻习近平主席重要指示精神].”
47. “Director of the Oceanic Bureau: From a Polar Power to a Polar Superpower [海洋局局长:
48. David Fishman, “China’s Advance into the Antarctic,” Lawfare, October 27, 2019, https://
49. “China Holds 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting,” The State Council of the
People’s Republic of China, n.d.,

Rush Doshi

50. Brady, China as a Polar Great Power, 2.
51. “Xuelong Attempts to Rescue Stranded Russian Ship in Antarctica,” People’s Daily Online [
人民网], December 30, 2013,
52. Brady, China as a Polar Great Power, 31.
53. Liu Jin, “The Arctic White Paper and the Development of China’s Position towards the
Arctic,” China Institute of International Studies, July 9, 2018,
54. Count of Chinese visits in an original database of Chinese diplomatic visits to the region.
55. “Chinese Warships Made ‘Innocent Passage’ Through U.S. Territorial Waters off Alaska,”
USNI News, September 3, 2015,
innocent-passage-through-u-s-territorial-waters-off-alaska; Brady, China as a Polar Great Power.
56. Trym Aleksander Eiterjord, “Checking in on China’s Nuclear Icebreaker,”
The Diplomat, September 5, 2019,
57. Original database of Chinese Arctic expeditions, relevant vessels, size, and dates.
58. Vanderklippe, “Chinese Scientists Look to Canadian Arctic for Research Outpost.”; Brady,
China as a Polar Great Power. Jichang Lulu, “China Wants Greenland Station ‘ASAP’; One
Candidate Site near Planned China Nonferrous Investment,” Jichang Lulu (blog), October
14, 2017,
59. “The Xuelong Returns from Breaking Ice [雪龙船 破冰归来],” Xinhua [新华网], September
27, 2018,
60. Matzen, “Denmark Spurned Chinese Offer for Greenland Base over Security: Sources.”;
“China Withdraws Bid for Greenland Airport Projects: Sermitsiaq Newspaper,” Reuters, June
4, 2019,
bid-for-greenland-airport-projects-sermitsiaq-newspaper-idUSKCN1T5191. “Chinese
Investor Acquires Port for Swedish Navy,” The Maritime Executive, April 12, 2017, https://; Jojje
Olsson, “China’s Bid to Build the Largest Port in Scandinavia Raises Security Concerns,”
Taiwan Sentinel, December 22, 2017,;
Jichang Lulu, “Lysekina: SOE, PLA-Linked United Frontling Want a Deep-Sea Port in
Sweden [UPDATED],” Jichang Lulu (blog), January 24, 2018, https://jichanglulu.wordpress.
“China and Finland: The Ice Road Cometh?,” Over the Circle, March 17, 2019, https://


Paying for Propaganda:

A Preliminary Study on the
Effectiveness of Beijing’s
“Advertorial” Inserts

Alexander Dukalskis is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow

and an Associate Professor at the School of Politics &
International Relations, University College Dublin.
Alexander Dukalskis

Authoritarian states try to present a positive image of themselves abroad
by showcasing their achievements, culture, and foreign relations. They do
so to enhance their international legitimacy, which in turns helps bolster
their internal and external regime security. States use a variety of tactics
to improve and/or protect their image, ranging from external propaganda
outlets to silencing critical dissidents abroad. This paper focuses on a tac-
tic that is used frequently by the Chinese government, namely paying for
advertising inserts in foreign newspapers and/or their websites. These are
variously called propaganda inserts, native advertising, or “advertorials” be-
cause they attempt to match the look and feel of the host publication. One
open question is whether these advertorials work to persuade readers to view
China in more favorable terms. This paper sets up a survey experiment to
test that proposition. Participants in Myanmar and Malaysia were randomly
assigned into a control or treatment group; both groups read a selection
of online newspaper articles and the treatment group also saw an adverto-
rial insert from the Chinese government. Participants then responded to
a series of questions about their political attitudes, including their percep-
tions of China and China’s role in their country. Ultimately the paper finds
that among these participants, advertorial inserts were not as persuasive as
Beijing surely hopes but also did not appear to engender anti-Beijing back-
lash either. There was limited evidence, however, the advertorials were effec-
tive for participants who were more politically aware readers and consumed
more news.

Policy Recommendations:
● No drastic policy of banning or severely restricting advertorial content
should be considered at this time.

● The Federal Trade Commission should consider issuing guidance specific to

pro-government advertorial content to assist media outlets.

● If they chose to run advertorials, media outlets should consider

modifications to agreements with advertorial clients to increase

Paying for Propaganda

transparency and to prevent advertisers from laundering the content later

by re-posting it with attribution given to the independent media outlet.

● Effective guidance and policy in this area should be promoted as

international best practice given the global scope of the advertorial strategy.

Alexander Dukalskis

The Irish Times is generally considered the newspaper of record in Ireland,

with a building in the center of Dublin, a national circulation, and a full-
service website. It has full-time foreign correspondents in several countries,
including China. One can find on the newspaper’s website a portal called
“Gateway to China”.1 The look and feel of the portal is similar to The Irish
Times, with comparable fonts and layout. The stories feature headlines un-
remittingly positive about China and Irish-Chinese relations: “China hosts
world’s largest trade expo,” “Chinese companies in Ireland—a win-win story”;
“Building on a warm and close relationship between Ireland and China”; and
so on. If one were to click on one of the headlines, the article would mostly
look the like any other Irish Times article save for a label that says “Sponsored
by the Embassy of China in Ireland.” An information button about sponsored
content explains that it is “premium paid-for content produced by The Irish
Times Content Studio on behalf of commercial clients. The Irish Times news-
room or other editorial departments are not involved in the production of
Sponsored content.”
The Irish Times is unusual insofar as it has produced material for the
Chinese government, but it is certainly not unique in running paid-for pro-
paganda for Beijing. Readers of The Economist, Washington Post, Los Angeles
Times, or the Wall Street Journal will have seen this at various points over
the years. Indeed, in the 2018 mid-term elections the practice briefly became
a national political issue in the United States as the China Daily—a govern-
ment-controlled newspaper—placed a four-page supplement in Iowa’s Des
Moines Register targeting the state’s farmers amid the U.S.-China trade war.2
A journalistic investigation in 2018 found that the Chinese propaganda ap-
paratus places advertorials in dozens of countries around the world, often in
newspapers with readerships in the millions and with major national news-
papers of smaller countries like Ireland.3 The practice is not new, nor is it by
any stretch the only (or even the most important) tactic in China’s external
image management portfolio, but the practice has gained more attention with
China’s growing power and global visibility. Some newspapers have begun to
halt the practice of running China’s advertorials after public and government
criticism, but many publications continue to do so.
One question that remains unanswered, however, is whether the tactic
of placing advertorials in foreign media outlets actually works. Is it effective

Paying for Propaganda

in shaping perceptions about China’s politics and foreign relations? Many

analysts of Chinese politics assume that the inserts are not effective because
they know that it is simply propaganda destined for the recycle bin or to be
skipped over online without being read. Some may go even further and posit
that advertorials might backfire by repulsing readers who do not want to
see propaganda from a foreign government in their newspapers. Still oth-
ers fret that readers may miss the subtle and sometimes opaque language
about “sponsored content” and be misled by the authentic look and feel of
the advertorials, thereby being influenced to think more in line with the
advertorial’s content. Yet there is little systematic evidence to substantiate
any of these viewpoints.
This study tries to shed light on this question through a survey experiment.
More details will be provided below, but in sum the study was conducted in
two countries: Myanmar and Malaysia. For each country, two hundred peo-
ple responded to several questions after reading a selection of news articles.
In each country, one hundred of them had a pro-Beijing advertorial included
in their reading material and one hundred did not. Participants were then
surveyed about their political attitudes, including about various aspects of
Chinese politics and foreign relations.
The results suggest at the aggregate level that the advertorials had no sta-
tistically discernible impact on participants’ views, although digging deeper
reveals some more nuanced associations. Specifically, there is some limited evi-
dence that when the advertorials are effective, they are effective on more polit-
ically aware readers who follow the news more closely. The strategy of placing
advertorials in agenda-setting outlets around the world targets precisely these
types of readers, although the results of the study should not be overstated,
nor their limitations ignored.
The remainder of this paper will proceed in four sections. First, an over-
view of China’s external propaganda will help situate the advertorial analysis
in a broader context. Second, an explanation of China’s advertorial strategy
with examples will illuminate this specific tactic of external propaganda.
Third, details of the survey experiment will be explained. Fourth, results will
be discussed. Finally, concluding remarks will address advances and limita-
tions of this research and elaborate some policy recommendations.

Alexander Dukalskis

External Propaganda, or “Telling China’s Story”

The Chinese government has long been concerned with how it is perceived
abroad.4 Even before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged victo-
rious in China’s civil war, Mao Zedong and the top leadership of the party
understood that a positive image abroad could help the party. A positive
image could help gain international supporters and material aid, as well as
frustrate the ability of international opponents to make their case. The most
famous early effort to burnish the party’s image abroad came with the publi-
cation of American journalist Edgar Snow’s influential book Red Star Over
China, which was based on his time spent with Mao and the communists in
1936 and introduced them to the world as sympathetic romantics.5 Snow’s
book was written after extraordinary hospitality and access facilitated by
the party. Reflecting the importance of the book to the CCP cause, content
was shaped by Mao and Zhou Enlai themselves, with the former editing his
reported comments (translated for him into Chinese) to hand back to Snow
for corrections. 6
Especially since the early 1990s, “promoting a positive image on the world
stage has been a top priority for the Chinese government.” 7 During that time
China was still trying to recover from the international backlash resulting
from the 1989 violent crackdown on protesters in and around Tiananmen
Square and several other cities throughout the country. It hired foreign public
relations firms to help improve its image abroad and mobilized foreign sup-
porters to defend the government’s actions.8
There was a deeper reason for the government’s renewed attention to au-
thoritarian image management around this time. To facilitate its rise, the
Chinese authorities needed to pay attention to how they were perceived
abroad, especially given that China’s political system did not comport with
the democratic values that had seemingly acquired international normative le-
gitimacy.9 China’s rise was bound to encounter scepticism—what the Chinese
government derisively calls the “China Threat Theory” or sometimes the “so-
called China Threat Theory”—and so a softer, reassuring image was necessary
to mollify foreign audiences as China rose and opened economically.
For the Chinese government, this realization heightened the importance
of foreign propaganda work.10 Chinese policymakers and intellectuals began
to debate how China could acquire more “soft power” abroad in order to show

Paying for Propaganda

China as a culturally attractive and politically benign rising power.11 While

there is a common perception that China’s external propaganda began to go
global under Xi Jinping, in 2008 during Hu Jintao’s tenure, Beijing invested
the equivalent of about 7 billion U.S. dollars to that end.12 When Xi took
power in 2012 he built on this foundation, emphasizing in a major 2013
speech that the CCP should “tell a good Chinese story, and promote China’s
views internationally” and “should spread new ideas and new perspectives
among developing states.”13
The result has been external propaganda products with greater reach and
sleeker appearance. China’s foreign language television channels were re-
branded as China Global Television (CGTN) and the country’s state-con-
trolled print outlets earnestly took to foreign social media platforms to spread
their messages. Xinhua, the main state news agency, continues to function as
a wire service for foreign news outlets, and produces content that packages
Beijing’s preferred messages to suit different geographic audiences.14
The idea behind China’s external propaganda is to get a “Chinese perspec-
tive,” which is a euphemism for a CCP-approved perspective, into the media
diet of foreign audiences. Sometimes this is done quietly, as with Xinhua’s
news agreements, which rely on readers of foreign news sources not knowing
that Xinhua in a government-controlled outlet. Sometimes the approach is to
mimic the look and feel of modern mainstream international news sources so
that CCP messages appear normal and natural, as with the case of CGTN
or the social media content of China’s state-controlled media. Occasionally
the effort relies on subterfuge, as when CCP-controlled China Radio
International used several layers of intermediaries to obscure its stake in over
30 radio stations around the world, allowing them to run pro-Beijing content
without listeners knowing they were listening to party propaganda.15 And of
course, in the case of advertorials, it is sometimes done directly, bluntly, and
relatively transparently.

Pro-CCP Advertorials: Background & Examples

Given the money and attention devoted by the CCP to its external propa-
ganda operations, the persistent presence of advertorials seems puzzling.
Advertorials appear to be a crude propaganda device unfit for a sophisticated

Alexander Dukalskis

global information strategy. And yet, they continue to be a tool in Beijing’s

external propaganda toolbox as of this writing.
Filings with the United States Department of Justice pursuant to the
Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reveal that the China Daily
Distribution Corporation spends millions of dollars every year in the United
States on advertising in mainstream newspapers.16 According to these filings,
it has paid the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and oth-
ers to carry its content in recent years. As mentioned above, the United States
is not the only target. Lim and Bergin recorded major newspapers in at least
a dozen countries that carry Chinese government advertorials, such as the
China Watch supplement.17
The true number is undoubtedly much higher. China Focus is a subsidiary
of Beijing Review, which itself was formerly the Peking Review. The Peking
Review was the weekly magazine that the Chinese government propagated
abroad, particularly during the Mao years.18 Today the Beijing Review still
operates, and its China Focus supplement is frequently one of the advertori-
als that Beijing pays to insert in foreign outlets. China Focus has purchased
space in several major news outlets, including The Economist, Newsweek, Time,
and Bloomberg Businessweek.19 On a par with the financial figures reported via
FARA, in the UK China Daily is reported to have paid £750,000 annually to
The Daily Telegraph to run the former’s China Watch supplement monthly.20
It is not possible to determine how much Chinese officialdom spends every
year globally on advertorials, but clearly the sums are substantial.
Not surprisingly, the content of the advertorials is overwhelmingly posi-
tive about China. The advertorials are about China advancing, developing,
being a leader, and playing a constructive, positive role in the world. This
mirrors the content of China’s main state news agency, Xinhua, and indeed
the advertorial content is oftentimes just reprinted Xinhua copy. A content
analysis of the Peking Review between 1954 and the early 2000s found that
the predominant images it presented to the outside world were that China is
peace-loving, the victim of foreign aggression, against hegemony, and was a
developing country.21
This is not so different from today’s Beijing Review. The presentation is
sleeker than its Maoist predecessor and shorn of much of its revolutionary jar-
gon, but the core message is similar. China is peacefully advancing in every

Paying for Propaganda

possible way and wishes to collaborate with willing partners. The 2020 end-of-
year issue of the Beijing Review features a list of China’s top ten news stories: a
“decisive victory” against covid-19, eradicating extreme poverty, new develop-
ment plans and civil codes, advances in space, and so on. The only potentially
contentious story that made the list was the Hong Kong National Security
Law, which the article presented in passive language.22 The top business stories
of the year were just as uncritically upbeat, if not more so, with no mentions of
major business stories that may cast China in a negative light, such as regula-
tors halting at the last minute the enormous and highly-publicized $34 billion
IPO of Ant Financial, let alone issues like coerced Uyghur labor in China’s
supply chains.23
Advertorial content appears to mirror the strategy apparent in Xinhua con-
tent, namely to adjust its messaging for regional audiences.24 Beijing Review,
for example, is available in English, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese.
Reflecting the importance of burnishing China’s image in Africa, it also
has a dedicated ChinaAfrica section. It features a “special report” available
in English and French called “Promoting Friendship: Highlighting China-
Africa people-to-people exchange”.25 On the main ChinaAfrica site, of the
eight “Latest Headlines” as of this writing, five are about various Chinese enti-
ties training or donating to African countries and/or about China as a model
for Africa (see Table 1). The text of all eight articles is Xinhua copy with the
look and feel of a genuine news story.
As mentioned earlier, China Focus describes itself as a “special feature pro-
duced by Beijing Review.” Whereas the latter publishes stand-alone issues,
China Focus appears explicitly designed in the advertorial format. Its website
features examples of the content that it has paid to run in The Economist, The
Daily Mail (Pakistan), Bloomberg Business, Newsweek, and Time. Again, the
content is overwhelmingly positive about China. A January 2020 piece by
the president of the Center for China and Globalization, a pro-government
think tank, is called “Building a Shared Future For All” and echoed familiar
CCP talking points about China’s role in the world.26 As with other examples
of propaganda inserts highlighted on this portal, the webpage of this article
misleadingly attributes The Economist as the source of the article, neglecting
to note that China Focus paid to put this content there. Most of the recent ad-
vertorials housed on the site are relatively staid texts about how China is a fair

Alexander Dukalskis

TABLE 1: Latest Headlines from on

December 23, 2020.

Africa CDC chief urges African countries to prepare for second wave of
COVID-19 infections
WHO says COVID-19 spurs health innovations in Africa
Africa’s confirmed COVID-19 cases near 1.8 mln: Africa CDC
Chinese medical experts arrive in Angola to aid fight against COVID-19
Ugandan, Chinese hospitals to cooperate to fight COVID-19
Chinese training project benefits Zambians: official
Chinese firm donates anti-malaria drugs to Kenya
Ugandan analysts hail China as example for developing world in
anti-poverty fight

international player, an attractive market, developing rapidly and sustainably,

and so on. Occasionally there are more pugilistic examples, such as a piece that
ran in the Daily Mail, Pakistan titled “National Interest or Self-Interest?”27
This piece argues that the United States is hypocritical, brings up the 2003
invasion of Iraq, laments the “ongoing smear campaign against China,” and
claims that “a few U.S. politicians purposefully refuse to tell the truth about
China and the China-U.S. relationship.”
In general, though, the advertorial genre is more anodyne and highlights
ostensibly positive aspects of China, Chinese development, and the Chinese
government’s policies. These efforts are often targeted toward geographical
and/or linguistic audiences. An open question, however, is whether these ef-
forts have any influence on how people think about China. Subsequent sec-
tions attempt an initial test of this question.

Case Selection & Survey Experiment

Malaysia and Myanmar were chosen with the logic of similarity in mind. Both
are in Southeast Asia and ASEAN members, which is important to China

Paying for Propaganda

due to its geographical proximity and economic exchange. Both have politi-
cal systems that rank similarly in terms of depth of democracy.28 In 2019 the
Varieties of Democracy project, for example, rated Myanmar as .25 (out of 1)
on its Liberal Democracy Index and Malaysia as .33. For reference in Asia,
China was .05 and South Korea was the highest in the region for 2019 with
a rating of .78.29 Both countries are ethnically diverse, but with one ethnic
group consisting of about two thirds of the population and with significant
ethnic Chinese populations. Finally, both countries are signatories of China’s
Belt and Road Initiative, which indicates both an elite receptivity to Beijing
and that these are countries in China’s long term political and economic plans.
Most importantly for this study, both Malaysia and Myanmar have featured
pro-CCP advertorial content in domestic media. Even setting aside Beijing-
friendly Chinese language media, which is particularly germane in Malaysia,
news consumers in both countries have been exposed to advertorials. The
issue received national attention in Malaysia in 2019 as the Chinese embassy
took out an advertorial in the Malaysian newspaper The Star to tell the CCP’s
version of events in Xinjiang.30 Repression in Xinjiang is especially salient in
Malaysia as it is a Muslim-majority country but with close economic ties to
China. It has grappled with whether to extradite Uyghurs back to China, for
example. As such, the propaganda efforts of the Chinese embassy on the issue
encountered pushback.31 In Myanmar, a journalistic investigation found sev-
eral media outlets that ran advertorials and other paid-for content on behalf
of Chinese state media, ranging from local outlets in northern Myanmar to
news sites with national readerships.32 It appears that the advertorial strategy
is active in both countries as of this writing.
For the study, over 200 participants were recruited in each country so that
the sample roughly mirrored the country’s overall demographics.33 Participants
were assigned randomly to a treatment or control group. The control group
read a selection of news articles and then answered 16 questions about their
political attitudes, including their feelings toward China and its role in their
country. The treatment group read the same selection of articles plus an adver-
torial insert and then answered the same 16 questions. Both groups followed
the same protocol with the only difference being the presence of advertorials
alongside the articles in the treatment condition. Exclusion criteria for low-
quality submissions included those who did not spend a reasonable amount

Alexander Dukalskis

of time reading the articles or who did not answer the questions. The num-
ber of articles and questions were determined after multiple rounds of pilot
surveys and feedback from participants pertaining to how long it took them
to read the material and how they understood the questions. The survey was
conducted in May 2020 by the Myanmar and Malaysian offices of the Kantar
Group, with the Yangon office as the primary point of contact.34 Due to covid-
19 restrictions in each country the survey was conducted entirely online. The
study conformed to European Union GDPR data protection protocols and
the study design was granted an exception from full review by the University
College Dublin Office of Research Ethics (reference HS-E-20-73-Dukalskis).
In Myanmar, participants were given articles in the Myanmar language.
The articles included one about education and school closures/openings dur-
ing covid-19, a piece about the November 2020 elections in the country, an
analysis of media freedom in Myanmar, and an article about earnings of grad-
uates in Singapore. In addition to these ordinary news stories, a translation of
a China Daily article titled “Belt and Road Boosting Myanmar Development”
was included for treatment group.35 The article was presented using the China
Daily imagery to replicate how advertorials often look in practice.
In Malaysia, participants were given the option of taking the survey in
Malay or in English, which is common practice survey research in the country.
Out of 200, 126 answered in English and 79 answered in Malay. Participants
were again given a selection of ordinary news articles that did not reference
China, such as articles about police monitoring for covid-19 compliance,
restaurants moving their services to take-out only, debates in the parliament
about lowering the voting age, a Philippine senator proposing taxes on digital
content, a heatwave in Vietnam, online education, food supplies during covid-
19, and the Shell Oil company partnering with local business. Participants
in the treatment group were also given a China Daily insert (translated in
the case of the Malay language participants) titled “Southeast Asia Grateful
for Chinese Help in Crisis” that dwells at length about how China is help-
ing Malaysia during the covid-19 pandemic.36 Again, the iconography of the
China Daily is retained to replicate how an advertorial is usually seen by a
newspaper or web reader.
After reading the articles, all participants were asked the same 16 substan-
tive questions followed by several demographic questions. The substantive

Paying for Propaganda

questions were adopted and adjusted as necessary from the Asian Barometer
Fourth Wave Core Questionnaire.37 These questions had already been scaled
and deployed in the region by a respected survey project, so this approach
was preferable to constructing new questions specifically for the study. The
questions addressed issues such as the relationship between democracy and
development, the actual and desired influence of China and the United States
in the country, which country should be a development model for the par-
ticipants’ country, whether the Belt and Road Initiative is positive or negative
for the country, and how democratic the following states are on a scale of 1 to
10: Malaysia, China, Singapore, the United States, and Myanmar. These ques-
tions were chosen with the aim of seeing whether the advertorial insert had
any discernible effects on the treatment group’s attitudes and perceptions on
issues important to China’s engagement in that country.

Results of Survey Experiment

The results of the survey experiment reveal that for treatment and control
groups as a whole there is no discernible difference in participant’s views about a
host of questions involving perceptions of Chinese politics or China’s influence
in their country. In these samples there are no significant differences between
(not) viewing an advertorial and responses to questions such as “generally speak-
ing, the influence China has on our country is...[range from very positive to very
negative]” or “generally speaking, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is…[range
from very positive for our country to very negative for our country]”.
Moreover, participants were asked “Which country should be a model for
our own country’s future development?” and given the options of the United
States, China, India, Japan, Singapore, and Other (with a randomized order
for each participant). In Malaysia, 46 of the participants who did not read
the advertorial chose Japan; 41 who read it also chose Japan. Participants
chose China as a model at the exact same rate, with 29 in the treatment group
and 29 in the control group choosing China. Singapore was selected by 20 in
the treatment and 21 in the control. For the same question on the Myanmar
sample the differences were similarly non-discernible. Only 2 participants
who read the advertorial chose China while 6 who did not choose China.
Singapore, Japan, and the United States all far outpaced China as a preferred

Alexander Dukalskis

model in Myanmar but there was no difference in terms of whether partici-

pants had been exposed to the advertorial or not.
At first glance then, it seems that advertorials had little discernible impact
on reader’s perceptions and assessments of China in this experiment. From the
perspective of China’s external propaganda aims, this is bad news. However,
given that there is no discernible correlation, evidence for a backlash from
readers does not appear either.
However, digging deeper it appears as if being in the treatment group (i.e.
exposed to the advertorial) had a small moderating effect on perceptions of
China for those who followed news and major events closely. Previous research
on authoritarian propaganda has found differential effects for audiences de-
pending on how politically aware they are.38 In this experiment participants
were asked how closely they followed major news and events in foreign coun-
tries and the world ranging from very little to very closely. This was designed
to proxy how aware participants were about global current events. This in-
teraction between political awareness and exposure to propaganda yielded at
least two noteworthy findings.
First, in the Malaysian control group, there is no direct effect on following
events closely and responses about whether China’s influence in Malaysia is
more or less positive. However, in the treatment group there is a relationship
between following events closely and how positively one assesses China’s influ-
ence in Malaysia. Put differently, there is no direct effect on following events
closely on the positive influence of China in the control group, but there is in
the treatment group.
Figure 1 displays this relationship for the Malaysia sample. The “Low
Tx” line is the control group, or the group that did not read the advertorial,
whereas the “High Tx” group represents the treatment group that did read
the advertorial. The Low Tx line is essentially flat, indicating that there is no
significant difference between those not exposed to the advertorial who fol-
low or do not follow events. The High Tx line indicates that those exposed
to the treatment who followed events closer had a more positive assessment
of China’s influence in Malaysia at the trend level (coefficient .32; standard
error .18; p-value .07). If a participant follows global events more closely in
this sample, they have a more positive view of China’s influence in Malaysia if
they are in the treatment group.

Paying for Propaganda

FIGURE 1: Moderating Effect of Treatment on Following Events and

Assessments of China’s Influence, Malaysia

China Positive Influence

3 LOW Tx

Low Events Closely High Events Closely

Second, in Myanmar there is a main effect for the treatment on how much
influence China has in the country (“How much influence does China have
on our country?” with responses ranging from a no influence at all to a great
deal). Paradoxically those in the treatment group see less influence of China
overall. However, there is also a significant interaction. In the control group
(i.e. not reading the advertorial) there is no effect of following events closely
on how much influence China is perceived to have in Myanmar. However, in
the treatment group there is a link between following events closely and per-
ceptions of the level of China’s influence.
Figure 2 displays this relationship for the Myanmar sample. Again, “Low
Tx” connotes the control group, and “High Tx” represents the treatment
group. It shows that the control group (i.e. those who did not read the ad-
vertorial) is displayed as a relatively flat line. There is a positive effect for the
treatment (i.e. those who read the advertorial). For those participants in the
treatment condition who followed major events more, they also reported that
China had greater influence in Myanmar (coefficient .31; standard error .12;
p-value .01). Put differently, those with higher political awareness who were
exposed to the treatment were more likely to think that China had more in-
fluence in Myanmar.

Alexander Dukalskis

FIGURE 2: Moderating Effect of Treatment on Following Events and

Assessments of Levels of China’s Influence, Myanmar

China Influence


Low Events Closely High Events Closely

While these findings are noteworthy, their limitations should be kept in

mind. This is one experiment in two countries with a relatively small number
of participants. Furthermore, the main effects of the treatment on a host of
questions about China are not significant. It is only if we consider the combi-
nation of political awareness and being exposed to an advertorial that we find
effects. Even so they are relatively minor, and we have no evidence that these
perceptions remain with participants after the experiment ends.
Despite these limitations, and without wishing to overstate the findings,
the results are suggestive of the logic behind China’s advertorial strategy.
Advertorials are generally placed in agenda-setting outlets. Readers of major
international outlets like the New York Times or The Economist, or of major
national newspapers in small countries, like The Irish Times, would likely fall
into the category of people who follow major events closely. This research sug-
gests that there is a logic to placing advertorials in front of their eyes. Highly
globally aware readers of these publications may feel themselves immune to
such a crude tactic as being targeted with an advertorial. This experiment,
however, shows that at least in this sample it may be precisely this category of
people that is most influenced by pro-CCP advertorials.

Paying for Propaganda

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

Beijing has been on a renewed global propaganda push for more than a de-
cade now. The effort unfolds across multiple media platforms in dozens of lan-
guages. It is designed to make the Chinese government and its policies look
acceptable for foreign audiences, which in turn may diminish resistance to its
foreign policies and reduce pressure for Beijing to change aspects of its domes-
tic politics.39
There is a persistent question about whether these efforts are effective.
According to the Pew Research Center, perceptions of China in wealthy de-
mocracies appear to have become much more negative in recent years, with
2020 appearing to damage the country’s image especially badly.40 In every
country surveyed, at least 70 percent of respondents had “no confidence” in
Xi Jinping to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”41 According to the
same research group, in less wealthy countries China’s image appears to fare
better, perhaps because it is perceived as an engine for economic growth or
even as a model for how to develop.42
These macro-level surveys are useful for providing a big picture as to how
China is perceived abroad. But they struggle to give us insights into how
China’s external propaganda strategy fares. After all, even with negative
perceptions growing, perhaps China’s image would be worse without its ex-
ternal propaganda efforts. It is hard to say with certainty, so experimental
evidence can supplement our understanding of how effective China’s for-
eign propaganda is.
Based on these results, and with all the caveats noted above about limited
sample size and geographical specificity, it appears that the advertorial strat-
egy does not always have major effects on readers. The experimental results did
not indicate widespread shifts in how readers perceived China, Chinese poli-
tics, or China’s role in their country. There were some limited exceptions to
that general finding with readers who follow global news events more closely
perceiving China’s role in their country differently after having read the ad-
vertorial. The latter finding speaks to the underlying logic of the advertorial
strategy: influence the perceptions of those most engaged with current affairs
so that they view China more positively.
What policy recommendations flow from these findings? First, the find-
ings are not strong enough or clear enough to justify extreme measures like

Alexander Dukalskis

banning the use of advertorials. While it may be distasteful for independent

news outlets to run government propaganda, the advertorials do not appear to
be an unqualified success from Beijing’s perspective. Indeed, as noted above in
the cases of the Xinjiang advertorial in Malaysia or the trade war advertorial
in the United States, they sometimes even become a focal point for objections
to China’s policies. In any case, banning advertorials would likely backfire.
Using the tools of authoritarianism to fight authoritarianism is fraught with
pitfalls, and censoring pro-CCP advertisements, especially in “the West,”
would only feed Beijing’s claims that the West is hypocritical and biased
against China.
Second, this does not mean that advertorials should be of no concern. They
are a clear case of an authoritarian state using the protections of the liberal
public sphere to advance an agenda designed to undermine that very sphere.
In the U.S. context, consistent with existing regulations on deceptive advertis-
ing, media houses should be clear that if they run advertorials, they are paid
advertisements and are independent of editorial or news content. In Beijing’s
global media push these lines are often intentionally blurred such that the end
consumer does not know if they are engaging with CCP propaganda. If ad-
vertorials run, they should be transparent on this point. Some outlets do bet-
ter than others in this regard, but in general the label should be large, clear,
and easy to understand to be consistent with United States Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) advice on native advertising.43
Furthermore, the FTC should consider issuing specific guidance relevant
to pro-government advertorials. On its website, the FTC provides easy-to-
understand advice for businesses on advertising laws and ethics in the United
States. Most relevant to advertorials is the guidance on native advertising,
which establishes the logic that “knowing that something is an ad likely will
affect whether consumers choose to interact with it and the weight or credibil-
ity consumers give the information it conveys.”44 Providing advice specific to
pro-government advertorials might include guidance on the ultimate owner-
ship of the advertiser, as when social media companies label China Daily, for
example, as a Chinese government-affiliated outlet. Of course, this only af-
fects advertorials that run in U.S.-based news outlets, but such guidance may
act as a template of best practice for other jurisdictions even more affected by
paid-for propaganda.

Paying for Propaganda

Media outlets have a responsibility, too. In addition to labelling re-

quirements, agreements to run this content should stipulate that sites like
ChinaFocus cannot then attribute that paid-for content to the outlet in which
it was advertised. This would limit the ability of the advertiser to use the cred-
ibility of the independent outlet to launder the content. Independent media
outlets should also consider publishing the financial agreements that under-
gird the advertorials, perhaps initially as a voluntary cooperation scheme with
the FTC. This would give a better sense of the parameters of the agreements
and enable more literacy about their scope and influence.
Third and finally, advertorials are only the most blatant form of the
CCP’s propaganda in foreign media environments. CGTN, China Radio
International, China International Publishing Group, and content specifi-
cally for Chinese language audiences abroad, to name a few, are all part of a
much larger external propaganda ecosystem of which advertorials are only a
small part.45 The content generated by the massive operation of Xinhua, for
example, often has the imprimatur of being legitimate news even if analysis
of its themes suggests that it is in essence a propaganda outlet.46 Increasing
transparency in these murkier areas of pro-CCP foreign propaganda is a press-
ing concern for which there are few obvious strategies. Perhaps the best that
democracies can do is insist on protecting their own liberal public sphere, de-
fending the principle of independent journalism, and letting labelling of ex-
ternal propaganda and scrutiny of its aims do the work for them.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

1. See here: (accessed Oct 5, 2020).
2. Donnelle Eller, “Chinese-backed Newspaper Insert Tries to Undermine Iowa Farm Support
for Trump, Trade War,” The Des Moines Register, September 24, 2018. Accessed October 5,
3. Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin, “Inside China’s Audacious Global Propaganda Campaign,” The
Guardian, December 7, 2018. Accessed December 17, 2019.
4. A fuller treatment of this topic can be found in chapters 5 and 6 of Alexander Dukalskis,

Alexander Dukalskis

Making the World Safe for Dictatorship, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). This
discussion draws on that work but focuses on the main points as they relate to advertorials.
5. Anne-Marie Brady, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s
Republic, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003): 44–47; Julia Lovell, Maoism: A
Global History, (London: Bodley Head, Penguin Random House, 2019): 60–87.
6. Lovell, Maoism, 76
7. Xiaoyu Pu, Rebranding China: Contested Status Signalling in the Changing Global Order,
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019): 35.
8. Ingrid d”Hooghe, “Public Diplomacy in the People’s Republic of China,” in The New Public
Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations, ed. by Jan Melissen, (London: Palgrave,
2005): 92; Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in
Contemporary China, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008): 159–160.
9. Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 4
(2015): 51; Kejin Zhao, “The Motivation Behind China’s Public Diplomacy,” Chinese Journal
of International Politics 8, no. 2 (2015): 167–196; Samuel Brazys and Alexander Dukalskis,
“Rising Powers and Grassroots Image Management: Confucius Institutes and China in the
Media,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 12, no. 4 (2019): 557–584.
10. Brady, Marketing Dictatorship, 151.
11. Yiwei Wang, “Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power,” The ANNALS of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 258; Sheng Ding, “Analyzing
Rising Power from the Perspective of Soft Power: A New Look at China’s Rise to the Status
Quo Power,” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 64 (2010): 255–272; Kingsley Edney,
Stanley Rosen, and Ying Zhu, eds. Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics: China’s Campaign
for Hearts and Minds, (New York: Routledge, 2020).
12. Brady “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine”; Wen-Hsuan Tsai, “Enabling China’s Voice to
Be Heard by the World: Ideas and Operations of the Chinese Communist Party’s External
Propaganda System,” Problems of Post-Communism 64, no. 3–4, (2017): 203–213.
13. Quoted in Brady, “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine”, 55.
14. Samuel Brazys and Alexander Dukalskis, “China’s Message Machine,” Journal of Democracy
31, no. 4 (2020): 59–73.
15. Koh Gui Qing and John Shiffman, “Beijing’s Covert Radio Network Airs China-Friendly
News Across Washington, and the World,” Reuters, November 2, 2015. Accessed October 6,
16. See the most recent financials, as of this writing, here:
Amendment-20200601-2.pdf and here:
Statement-20200521-32.pdf, both accessed December 27, 2020.
17. Lim and Bergin, “Inside China’s Audacious Global Propaganda Campaign.”
18. See several examples in Lovell, Maoism.
19. See the website here:
20. Jack Hazlewood, “China Spends Big on Propaganda in Britain…But Returns are Low,”
Hong Kong Free Press, April 3, 2016. Accessed October 6, 2020. https://hongkongfp.
21. Hongying Wang, “National Image Building and Chinese Foreign Policy,” China: An

Paying for Propaganda

International Journal 1, no. 1 (2003): 46–72.

22. See
t20201221_800230547.html (Accessed 23 December 2020).
23. See (Accessed 23
December 2020).
24. Brazys and Dukalskis, “China’s Message Machine,” 2020.
25. See
People_Exchange/ (Accessed 23 December 2020).
26. See
t20200121_800190594.html (Accessed 23 December 2020).
27. See
t20201009_800223112.html (Accessed 23 December 2020). Neither the circulation or
credibility of the Daily Mail, Pakistan are clear, nor does it maintain a discernible web
presence beyond a few social media accounts.
28. This study was undertaken before the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar.
29. See the V-Dem interactive mapping tool at:
(Accessed 5 October 2020).
30. FMT News. “Chinese Embassy Takes Up Full-page Ad to Show it ‘Cares’ for
Uighurs.” Free Malaysia Today News February 1, 2019. Accessed December
27, 2020.
31. Jerry Choong, “Visit Xinjiang Ourselves? Stop Playing Propaganda with Uighurs,
Malaysian Muslim Youth Group Tells Beijing,” Malay Mail, December 31, 2019.
Accessed December 27, 2020.
32. Tin Htet Paing, “How China Pushes Its Agenda in Myanmar Media,” Myanmar Now
October 9, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2020:
33. This sample size has statistical power of .80 to detect a medium effect size or mean difference
between the two groups at alpha = .01; see Jacob Cohen, “A Power Primer,” Psychological
Bulletin 112, no. 1 (1992): 155–159.
34. See the company’s information here:
(Accessed 5 October 2020).
35. See the English version here:
WS5e1cf966a310128217270a0b.html (Accessed 5 October 2020).
36. See the original version here:
WS5ea40a4ea310a8b2411518fb.html (Accessed 5 October 2020).
37. The full questionnaire is available at Asian Barometer Wave 4th Survey. Asian Barometer,
2015. Accessed October 5, 2020:
38. Barbara Geddes and John Zaller, “Sources of Popular Support for Authoritarian Regimes,”
American Journal of Political Science 33, no. 2 (1989): 319–347; John James Kennedy,
“Maintaining Popular Support for the Chinese Communist Party: The Influence of
Education and the State-Controlled Media,” Political Studies 57, no. 3 (2009): 517–536.

Alexander Dukalskis

39. Dukalskis, Making the World Safe for Dictatorship.

40. Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China
Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,” Pew Research Center October 6, 2020.
Accessed December 27, 2020.
41. Ibid.
42. Silver, Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “2. Attitudes Toward China,” Pew
Research Center December 5, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.
43. Federal Trade Commission, “Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses,” December 2015.
Accessed January 29, 2021.
44. Ibid.
45. Tsai, “Enabling China’s Voice to Be Heard by the World.”
46. Brazys and Dukalskis, “China’s Message Machine”.


The Global Impact of

China’s Surveillance
Technology: Issues for
U.S. Policy

Sheena Chestnut Greitens is a 2020

Wilson China Fellow and an Associate Professor at
the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the
University of Texas at Austin.
Sheena Chestnut Greitens

The rise of China’s surveillance state has had a clear global impact. As of late
2019, China had exported surveillance technology platforms for use in polic-
ing and public safety to over 80 countries, raising questions about how their
use will impact data privacy and data security, human rights and democratic
freedoms, and technology competition between the United States and China.
This report outlines these developments and offers eight recommendations for
future U.S. policy, beginning with the idea that the United States needs to
develop a comprehensive, interagency strategy to address the challenges posed
by the global impact of China’s surveillance technologies.1

● Develop a comprehensive interagency strategy to address issues raised by
the development, use, and export of Chinese surveillance technology.

● Develop a process to track the adoption and impact of Chinese

surveillance technology on key outcomes worldwide.

● Tailor messages about the risks of Chinese surveillance technology

to address regional conditions and the perspectives of subnational

● Work with potential adopters to address the underlying governance

challenges that make Chinese surveillance technology appealing in the
first place.

● Strengthen U.S. and partner innovation capacity to ensure that

alternative, democracy-compatible technological solutions are competitive
in the global marketplace.

● Work with countries where de-adoption of Chinese surveillance tech is

unrealistic, where possible, to create technical or legal mechanisms that
protect liberal democracy.

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

● Create and implement a plan for engagement with standard-setting

bodies to promote democracy-compatible international standards on the
use of emerging technologies.

● Carefully consider the role of the Chinese diaspora and ensure that
education and immigration policies operate in tandem with the
proposed strategy.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

How is China’s pursuit of a surveillance state at home affecting its foreign

policy and the contours of global politics? By now, most readers will have
seen media discussions of China’s use of surveillance technology, particularly
given the prominence of these tools in China’s handling of the COVID-19
pandemic. But even before the outbreak of the pandemic, policy analysts had
expressed concern about autocratic employment of high-tech and artificial-in-
telligence-based approaches to policing and public security, and the potential
for tools developed in China to affect civil liberties, human rights, and free-
doms well beyond the borders of the PRC.2
Journalists and scholars have extensively documented the rise of the sur-
veillance state inside China itself. These analyses have traced the procurement
of large amounts of surveillance technology of various types in subnational
units across the Chinese mainland;3 explored China’s efforts to solve “infor-
mation islands” that limit the party-state’s ability to make use of the massive
amounts of information it is collecting;4 interrogated the current and poten-
tial future use of surveillance technologies in Hong Kong;5 and examined the
application of surveillance tech tools to the escalation of collective and mass
repression in Xinjiang, where Turkic Muslim minorities, particularly China’s
Uyghur population, have been targeted for mass detention, involuntary ide-
ological reeducation, and escalated monitoring and control in the name of
‘counterterrorism’ and ‘deradicalization.’6
The global export of various surveillance and policing technologies by
Chinese companies has also received a heightened level of scrutiny.7 We can
now read detailed case studies of the spread and use of surveillance technol-
ogy from China to places like Venezuela, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and
Myanmar. 8 Huawei, the largest supplier of these kinds of platforms, has oc-
cupied a central place in the discussion of U.S.-China trade and technological
competition, and was a central focus of the Trump administration’s efforts to
warn of the dangers of Chinese tech company expansion.9 A Congressional
hearing in May 2019 cautioned that China’s export of surveillance tech-
nologies would give “countries the technological tools they need to emulate
Beijing’s model of social and political control,”10 while a prominent piece in
Foreign Affairs asked if China was “making the world safe for autocracy.”11
This project explores the international consequences of the rise of China’s
surveillance state. As of late 2019, Chinese surveillance technologies were in

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

use for policing and domestic security purposes in at least 80 countries world-
wide (an estimate that may well miss some instances).12 China’s growing major
power role, and its leadership role in a number of international institutions,
make it more likely that these technologies and tools will spread into use glob-
ally, even if China is not explicitly exporting some kind of full and well-de-
fined authoritarian “model.”13 The United States needs a comprehensive and
strategic approach to this issue. This report, therefore, briefly outlines the do-
mestic development of China’s surveillance state, investigates the effect that
surveillance platforms have had on crime control and democracy abroad, and
closes with recommendations for U.S. policy.

Domestic Development of China’s Surveillance State

Xi Jinping has significantly overhauled China’s approach to domestic security,
a redirection that was signaled early in his tenure by remarks on the impor-
tance of “comprehensive” or “holistic” national security, the 2015 launch of
China’s inaugural national security strategy, and an organizational and legal
overhaul of China’s political-legal apparatus (政法系统, zhengfa xitong).14
Xi emphasizes “prevention and control” (防控, fangkong), a more proactive
term than the previous lexicon of “stability maintenance.”15 In 2015, Meng
Jianzhu—then the head of China’s Central Political-Legal Commission (中
共中央政法委员会, or Zhongyang Zhengfawei) —emphasized fangkong as
the “correct direction” for political-legal work.16 In 2019, Minister of Public
Security Zhao Kezhi urged his audience to “always insist on putting preven-
tion of political risks as the first priority.”17
Information technology and surveillance play a central role in this vision.
In April 2015, the CCP Central Committee and PRC State Council called for
creation of a “three-dimensional information-based prevention and control
system for public-social security” (创新立体化信息化社会治安防控体系,
chuangzin litihua xinxihua shehui zhi’an fangkong tixi) to “comprehensively
promote the construction of a peaceful China.”18 This directive outlines an
expansion of networked video surveillance and community grid management,
enhancement of predictive and early warning capabilities in public security,
and reorganization of local party and government work to limit information
gaps and achieve smoother coordination of public security intelligence.19

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

From 2008 to 2018, almost all of China’s 332 prefectural-level units ad-
opted an approach known as “community grid management” (CGM). Under
this system, high-tech data collection and integration platforms manage a
system of local “grids,” closely monitoring developments and triaging re-
sponses to strengthen social control.20 Under initiatives such as Skynet (天
网, Tianwang) or the “Bright Snow Project” (雪亮工程, Xueliang Gongcheng,
also called “Sharp Eyes”), video surveillance and facial recognition are being
integrated into grid management platforms, and officials are learning to use
the data-integration platforms to identify threats via predictive analytics. 21 In
March 2018, a graduate student working on surveillance in Hunan province
tested the system run by his local PSB; it took the police four minutes and
fifteen seconds to locate him, and just over five minutes to take him into cus-
tody.22 A similar experiment by BBC reporter John Sudworth in Guiyang in
December 2017 lasted seven minutes.23
The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 in Wuhan accelerated consoli-
dation of these systems, and further strengthened them.24 Community lock-
down enforcement relied heavily on CGM.25 The Politics & Law Committee
in Hubei (population 59 million), for example, mobilized 170,000 grid work-
ers to conduct health surveillance and home checks, and to enforce quarantine
and travel restrictions.26 The 2008 Beijing Olympics precipitated global diffu-
sion of China’s surveillance technology in public safety and urban security;
2020 could, potentially, serve as a similar demonstration point for marketing
and export of Chinese health surveillance technologies.

China’s Global Surveillance Exports: Questioning Impact

China’s surveillance and policing technologies are already having global im-
pact. China has exported surveillance platforms for use in policing and in-
ternal security to at least 80 countries worldwide. 27 There are a range of
motivations cited for these exports, involving both supply- and demand-side
explanations. Supply-side explanations tend to focus on these exports’ poten-
tial to gain China strategic leverage, or on China’s desire to ensure a world
friendly for autocratic practices.28 Chinese tech companies and adopting ju-
risdictions, however, tend to emphasize a governance demand that these prod-
ucts meet, usually related to public safety, tourism, and job creation.29

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

While systematic data on the effects of these systems remains limited, we

are starting to get a sense of whether the systems work for the various purposes
that have been attributed to them. Unfortunately, the systems appear to be
better at aiding repressive governments than at performing crime control. The
cases of Kenya and Myanmar provide some useful illustration on this point.

Case Study: Kenya

In 2014–15, the city of Nairobi worked with Huawei on a Safe City project
involving a reported 2,000 high-definition surveillance and traffic cameras
enabled with automatic plate number recognition and connected under an
“integrated command solution.” The city became one of Huawei’s favorite suc-
cess stories. One marketing piece from the company described the system’s
efficiency in crime control and public safety as follows:

The system worked during Pope Francis’ visit to Kenya in 2015, where
more than eight million people welcomed his arrival. With Huawei’s
HD video surveillance and a visualized integrated command solution,
the efficiency of policing efforts as well as detention rates rose signifi-
cantly. The regional crime rate has since dropped by 46 percent. In
2016, the number of international tourists travelling to Kenya rose by
13.5 percent year-on-year.30

This initial success prompted expansion of Huawei’s Safe City activities in

Kenya and in the region.  In 2017, the Kenyan government signed a further
agreement with Huawei that included provision of safe city technology to
three cities (Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret, according to the draft 2019 budget
for Kenya), as well as technical training for 30 IT students under the “Seeds
for the Future” program.31 A Chinese concessional loan funded a $172.7 mil-
lion “Konza Technology City” project that involved a data center, smart city,
and surveillance project.32 Huawei’s success was praised in a promotion pack-
age on its own website, as well as in a market report and a journalism piece
that referred to Huawei as a “precious ally” of Nairobi’s police.33
Huawei’s advertisement of its success in Kenya appears to have encouraged
others in the region to adopt the same approach. For example, the project is

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

mentioned as precedent in coverage of a command center and 2000-camera

surveillance system for the Gendarmerie Nationale in Yaounde, installed
by Huawei in partnership with Cameroon’s state-owned telecom operator,
Camtel.34 Huawei marketing executives were also granted an opportunity
to speak at a conference for mayors and other local government officials in
Mombasa in fall 2019, pitching their wares with phrases like “Safe City first…
if it’s not safe, no-one will invest there,” and “it’s not only the camera, but also
the artificial intelligence behind it on the cloud,” which they describe as recog-
nizing brands of footwear, clothing, and an individual’s gait.35
However, the 2014–15 drop on crime that Huawei cited as evidence of suc-
cess didn’t last, and it’s not clear whether the drop was actually attributable
to the “Safe City Solution” in the first place. There was a drop in Nairobi’s
crime rate from 2014 to 2015, though the Kenyan National Police Service cal-
culates it at 40 percent rather than 46 percent—but there had also been a drop
the year prior to the Safe City installation, and the 2014–15 decrease was fol-
lowed by a rising crime rate for several years thereafter. Annual crime reports
issued by the Kenyan National Police Service list Nairobi’s crime statistics as
7288 (2014, an 18 percent decline from 2013); 4383 (2015, a 40 percent drop,
similar to the effect advertised by Huawei); 4954 (2016, a 13 percent year-on-
year increase); 7434 (2017, a 50 percent increase); and 7128 (2018, a 4 percent
decrease, and the latest available data).36Perhaps unsurprisingly, the market-
ing material touting Kenya as a major Huawei “Safe City” success had been
removed from Huawei’s website by early 2021.
The lesson from Kenya is that there is reason to question the marketing
pitch that Huawei and others have used, which argues that Chinese surveil-
lance tech provides a public good by enhancing public safety and thereby job
creation and economic growth. Conversely, however, how much surveillance
technology has contributed to weakness of democracy in Kenya is uncertain.
Freedom House’s 2020 report notes that “the government in recent years has
used broadly defined surveillance powers to monitor mobile phone and inter-
net communications,” but does not specifically mention the Safe City project
or urban surveillance.37 Over the course of the past decade, Kenya’s Freedom
House score has declined within the Partly Free category, but some of this “au-
thoritarian drift” predates the Safe City project, leaving open the possibility
that both surveillance and declining freedom are a result of illiberal choices

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

by Kenya’s leaders.38 In that case, surveillance would be facilitating, but not

necessarily independently affecting, Kenya’s democratic erosion.

Case Study: Myanmar

In 2019, the Mandalay regional government in Myanmar announced a Safe
City agreement with Huawei, under which Huawei would provide CCTV
cameras equipped with AI and facial-recognition technologies, as well as in-
stallation and technical support services–a 1.9B-kyat (USD $1.24 million)
project which was supposed to be operating within six months of the contract
signing.39 Regional officials emphasized the primacy of public safety for at-
tracting investment at the time the accord was signed, as well as Huawei’s cost-
competitiveness. In December 2020, the capital Naypyitaw also launched a
$2.9 million, 355-camera system enabled with facial recognition and AI. The
system was a partnership between Huawei, which supplied most of the equip-
ment, and two local companies that are building the physical command cen-
ter and installing the cameras, a common structure in the export of Chinese
technology where Chinese surveillance companies provide some but not all of
the tech stack. As in Kenya, the pitch was crime control. Zhou Kai, the head
of Huawei in Myanmar, commented that “the Mandalay government selected
us because this Huawei system will improve the police task force’s capability
and reduce crime rates.”40
The surveillance systems provided by Chinese companies in Myanmar
have not been around long enough to test whether they positively affect in-
vestment, tourism, or job growth (though at present, positive movement in
those indicators seems unlikely). Their installation has, however, facilitated
the military’s crackdown on protest in the aftermath of their February 2021
seizure of power from the civilian NLD and declaration of a yearlong state
of emergency under military rule. Less than two weeks after seizing power,
the Tatmadaw suspended specific portions of the Law Protecting the Privacy
and Security of Citizens–specifically the sections that place limits on arbi-
trary search and seizure, arbitrary detention, and warrantless surveillance.41
Surveillance technology has played a key role in the junta’s crackdown, includ-
ing technologies that unlock, recover, and decrypt data from mobile phones,
Israeli surveillance drones, and other digital forensic technology (not just

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

from China, but from a number of Western countries as well).42 Moreover,

Voice of America has reported that China is providing technical assistance
to Myanmar’s military on the implementation of a draft cybersecurity law
that would create firewall, data monitoring, and censorship mechanisms in
Myanmar’s internet similar to those found in China.43 The use of cell data, de-
encryption of communications, and combined use of Chinese and other tech-
nology in escalation of political repression is similar to the pattern reported by
the Wall Street Journal in Uganda and Zambia, where Huawei personnel were
alleged to have provided even more specific technical assistance in gaining ac-
cess to political opponents’ apps and other communications and identifying
their physical locations for eventual arrest by Zambian security forces.44
It is, of course, too early to tell the impact of Myanmar’s newly installed
surveillance platforms from China. But in spring 2021, the promised advan-
tages of tourism, investment, and public safety appear not to be forthcom-
ing, while the repressive advantages that these platforms confer upon a gov-
ernment determined to wield them against political opposition have become
increasingly clear. Provision of Chinese surveillance technology may not turn
democracies into repressive autocracies on its own, but it seems to facilitate
and sharpen repression once leaders have embarked on an autocratic course,
while also failing to deliver the benefits that tech companies have marketed
and that recipient-country officials have used to justify their procurement.

Implications for Policy

The growing global presence of Chinese surveillance technologies is poten-
tially concerning from a U.S. policy standpoint for three main reasons. The
first is the one noted above, that these technologies may be used to violate
human rights and/or corrode democracy in the places they are exported to.
Second and relatedly, there are concerns about data security and data privacy,
which may present problems even if overall democratic erosion does not occur.
Third, American policymakers have concerns about the overall role that tech-
nology will play in U.S.-China strategic and security competition, and sur-
veillance technology falls under this heading. Going forward, it will be help-
ful for American policy discourse to be specific about which interests are at
risk in specific countries and policy decisions.

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

This section offers eight major recommendations to enhance the clarity

and strategic coherence of U.S. policy.45 Since export controls and sanctions
designations have already become the go-to tools of choice for American
policymakers on these questions, I try specifically to look beyond these ap-
proaches to focus on recommendations that are not already incorporated into
American policy.46
First, the U.S. government should establish an interagency strategy for ad-
dressing the issues raised by the China’s use and export of surveillance tech-
nology. Given the range of U.S. interests, bureaucratic equities, and policy
tools involved, an interagency approach led by the National Security Council
makes the most sense. Although Chinese technology was a large focus for
the Trump White House, the previous administration’s strategy documents
(either the White House strategy document on China or the recently-declas-
sified Indo-Pacific strategy document) did not call for or offer a comprehen-
sive global strategy on Chinese surveillance technology.47 Going forward,
the United States should produce a clear framework that outlines exactly
what threats the global use of Chinese surveillance technologies pose to
American interests, and links this assessment to a discussion of how various
tools should be employed to protect American interests against these poten-
tial threats. This framework could be a stand-alone or a subcomponent of a
larger strategy review; it could be done privately or publicly; and it could be
done on the administration’s own initiative or mandated via a Congressional
reporting requirement (the latter of which would ensure more continuity
across administrations). It should also include some process of getting input
from—though not being captured by—the technology sector, civil society
organizations impacted by these developments, and stakeholders outside the
United States.
A coordinated strategy would provide both a baseline reference point and
a shared lexicon for explaining specific policy decisions. For example, the
links that some companies involved in surveillance tech export have to the
PRC defense-industrial complex has elevated concern about their activities.
CEIEC, for example, has contributed significantly to public security tech-
nology projects in Latin America; it is a state-owned enterprise under China
Electronics Corporation that concentrates on defense electronics, and was
previously sanctioned by the U.S. for nonproliferation violations.48 Hikvision

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

and Dahua, among others, have been sanctioned for involvement in human
rights violations in Xinjiang.49 Other companies, however, are concerning on
both data privacy and democracy-eroding grounds: for example, the Trump
administration targeted WeChat and TikTok because of their use of surveil-
lance and potential coercion, but also due to concerns about data privacy.50
Outlining ex ante the standards for U.S. government concern will enhance
the coherence and predictability of U.S. policy and make coordination with
allies easier. It will also highlight areas where company-specific actions make
sense, and where U.S. objectives may be better served by creating sector-wide
solutions and principles.51
Second, the United States should develop a process to regularly track the
adoption and assess the impact of Chinese surveillance technology on global
democracy, civil liberties, and human rights. It would be helpful to have close-
to-real-time analysis of whether these technologies actually have the impact
hypothesized—by those who market them, those who adopt them, and those
who are concerned about their negative impacts. That analysis should be mul-
tidimensional in order to assess policy tradeoffs: it is a different global con-
versation if the use of these technologies produces both a decrease in crime
and increase in repression versus if their adoption impacts only one of these
metrics, and will also differ if the impact is different in different political con-
texts.52 This kind of monitoring cold be collected and incorporated into the
U.S. State Department’s annual reports on global human rights, or could be
gathered in partnership with academic research institutions and civil society
advocacy groups, such as the ongoing V-Dem project that measures pandemic-
related democratic backsliding.53
Third, the United States should adapt more tailored messaging that better
addresses the interests of its global audiences. Some of this is regional specific-
ity: Huawei’s marketing materials emphasize extremism in the Middle East,
crime in Latin America and parts of Africa, and data management and “smart
city” sustainability in Europe.54 Recent survey data also shows that global lev-
els of concern and preferred approaches toward Chinese tech companies vary
considerably.55 Thus far, however, U.S. rhetoric has been relatively one-size-
fits-all, China-focused, and not sufficiently specific about why partner coun-
tries should be concerned. Diplomatic messaging, therefore, should adapt
overarching concerns to the context and conditions in particular recipient

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

countries to maximize the effectiveness of U.S. public and private communi-

cations with potential adopters.
The other area in which the U.S. needs to tailor messaging is by recogniz-
ing that subnational authorities—mayors, provincial governors, local police
chiefs, etc.—are the ones typically making adoption decisions, rather than for-
eign policy and national security specialists at the national level. Subnational
officials often have different priorities; they are more directly accountable to
voters on specific electoral timetables; and they may have more varied levels of
knowledge and expertise about China and/or the national security issues that
can arise in different technology platforms. Any future American communi-
cation strategy should factor these differences into deciding what messages to
deliver, in what format, at what time, to whom.
A fourth recommendation is also audience-related: the United States
must understand that some countries pursue Chinese surveillance technol-
ogy platforms because they believe these platforms can solve real governance
problems. The U.S. cannot effectively message about the risks and dangers
of Chinese surveillance technology unless it has a credible alternative to
solve the underlying governance challenge that is driving officials to seek
out Chinese surveillance platforms in the first place. Moreover, if listeners
perceive that American warnings on Chinese surveillance technology com-
pete with other U.S. policy priorities, it may be unclear how they should
weight the resulting tradeoffs. In Latin America, for example, how would
a provincial official address the potential tension from messages to decrease
crime and drug-related activity to lower migration pressure on the United
States’ southern border, but do so without using the platform (from China)
that he believes is most cost-effective and likely to work?56 Similarly, if the
United States is concerned about China’s role in data integration and big-
data analysis of the UN’s sustainable development goals, it should articulate
the sources of its concern and explain what viable alternative the United
States would propose and support.57
Fifth, the United States should strengthen its own innovation capacity and
development of democracy-compatible technologies, to ensure that these al-
ternatives are competitive in a global marketplace. The U.S. will only convince
the world to use “Clean Networks” (the Trump administration’s initiative) if
the technologies involved are as good and as affordable as the ones offered by

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

Chinese technology companies.58 Strengthening capacity for technological in-

novation is a complex challenge; it will involve thorny questions about (among
other things) how to guard against illicit technology transfer in a world where
much of America’s tech talent originates from individuals born in China who
come to the United States to study.59 The need to incorporate education and
immigration into U.S. strategy amplifies and reinforces the need for a compre-
hensive interagency approach.
Sixth, the United States needs to consider a two-layered strategy regard-
ing third-countries’ use of Chinese surveillance technology. Most emphasis
to date has been on convincing other countries not to use Chinese technol-
ogy.60 This approach has had some success in recent decisions to curtail use
of Huawei products in countries like the UK and India, but overall, there are
very few cases of complete de-adoption after a country has installed a Chinese
platform for public safety purposes. (De-adoption may happen more often as
some of the initial platforms reach the end of their technological shelf-life,
but this remains to be seen). Instead, cities or countries have been more likely
to put restrictions on specific features of the platform used. This dynamic has
been most common in countries like the Philippines and Malta, where civil
society and media reporting has contributed to scrutiny of Chinese technol-
ogy and led to specific safeguards and elite commitments regarding both data
privacy and civil liberties.61
This suggests that the United States should create an additional layer of
policy, in which it works with countries that have already adopted Chinese
surveillance technology to create safeguards and firewalls around their use.
For cases where immediate de-adoption and replacement of these platforms
is not be feasible, the United States and others are likely best served by cre-
ating strong mechanisms that constrain their use. Such protective measures
could be both technical and legal (either legislative or regulatory/administra-
tive), providing intermediate measures to protect democracy and data secu-
rity. U.S. democracy promotion attention and funding, as well as partnerships
with organizations that focus on capacity-building, such as the American Bar
Association, National Endowment for Democracy, and National Democratic
Institute, among others, could be deployed toward this goal. The approach
also does not have to be China-specific (since China is a significant but not the
sole source of these technologies), but could be framed as working with allies

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

and partners to establish global norms and standards to protect democracy in

a rapidly changing technological climate.62
Seventh, and related, the strategy must include a clear plan for American
engagement with global standards-setting and regulation of surveillance tech-
nologies. Use and export of this technology has to date been subject to very few
global regulations,63 and where international standards exist, many of them have
been proposed or drafted by Chinese tech companies. China’s growing lead-
ership role in global governance has been particularly important for the tech
sector;64 the International Telecommunications Union, for example, has been
headed by PRC national Zhao Houlin since 2014, has received nearly all its sug-
gestions on facial recognition tech standards from China, and had adopted over
half of what it had received as of late 2019.65 China’s September 2020 proposal
for a Global Data Security Initiative codified “a blueprint for the formulation of
international principles,” and invited other countries and international organi-
zations to participate in China’s proposed framework, positioned as an alterna-
tive to the United States’ “free and open internet” approach.66
Success in setting standards and a regulatory environment that favor
Chinese companies is likely to correspondingly affect global markets, provid-
ing governments worldwide additional reasons to use these technologies. This,
in turn, may seed support for these platforms across the international system,
making it harder for the United States and like-minded partners to promote
democracy-compatible technological alternatives. Conversely, however, it
is unrealistic for the United States to try to deny China a say in global data
and tech governance altogether. The United States’ overall strategy, therefore,
needs to address questions such as: which global forums should set standards
for which technologies; what those standards and safeguards should be; how
interagency efforts within the United States should be organized; and how
the United States should work with allies, partners, and international orga-
nizations to collaboratively but assertively shape a global environment com-
patible with liberal democracy. The identification of emerging tech as an area
of focus for the Quad in the Biden administration’s recent summit, and the
creation of a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, could be the
beginning of this kind of approach.67
Eighth and finally, any strategy adopted by the United States with respect
to surveillance technology should carefully consider the role of the Chinese

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

diaspora in the United States, both those who now hold American citizen-
ship and those who do not. As noted above, much of America’s tech talent
involves people from China who study in the United States and choose to
remain longer-term.68 U.S. policies must ensure that counterintelligence in-
vestigations related to illicit tech transfer and espionage enforce the law and
protect American interests, but do so without unnecessarily and unfairly tar-
geting legitimate study and research. Pushing Chinese students and research-
ers to return to China when many would otherwise seek to stay in the United
States will damage the human capital base required for future technological
innovation. Indiscriminate targeting of legitimate activity may also make it
more difficult to counter pernicious foreign influence by alienating the very
communities and diaspora members who will be critical to successful coun-
terintelligence work.
Any successful strategy must therefore recognize and deal with a thorny co-
nundrum: while the United States seeks to avoid profiling and discrimination
based on ethnic background, the Chinese Communist Party tends to regard
members of the diaspora as a national asset and part of the body politic even
when they are located abroad, and has sometimes placed members of that dias-
pora under pressure.69 Technologies such as WeChat may deliver that coercive
pressure, but the fundamental dilemma is political rather than technological,
and will not vanish with the banning or blocking of any app. The Chinese dias-
pora is increasingly the site of political contention, action, and repression, espe-
cially as other avenues of contention within China become ever more limited.70
The United States must think systematically about this issue, define the prob-
lem and the stakes, and articulate the principles and interests that will guide its
choices, as a first step toward generating constructive policy solutions.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

1. Some of the ideas and evidence presented in this essay draw on earlier work I have done on
China’s surveillance state in global politics, including “Dealing with Global Demand for China’s
Surveillance Exports” (Brookings, April 2020), and “China’s Surveillance State at Home and
Abroad: Implications for U.S. Policy” (University of Pennsylvania working paper, 2020).

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

2. Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick, “The Autocrat’s New Tool Kit,” The Wall Street
Journal, March 15, 2019,
kit-11552662637; Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, “The Digital
Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy,” Foreign Affairs 99:2 (March/April
2020),; Adrian
Shahbaz, “Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” (Washington,
DC: Freedom House, October 2018),
3. Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg, “State of Surveillance,” ChinaFile, October 30, 2020,
4. Huirong Chen and Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Information Capacity and Social Order: The
Local Politics of Information Integration in China,” Governance (forthcoming).
5. See, for example, Paul Mozur and Lin Qiqing, “China Takes Symbolic Stand Against China’s
High-Tech Surveillance,” New York Times, October 3, 2019.
6. Darren Byler, “Chinese Infrastructures of Population Management on the New Silk
Road,” the Wilson Center (Spring 2021); Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee, and
Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and Preventive Repression: China’s Changing Strategy
in Xinjiang,” International Security, 44:3 (Winter 2019/20), pp. 9–47; Louise Lucas and
Emily Feng, “Inside China’s Surveillance State,” Financial Times, July 19, 2018, https://; Paul Mozur, “Inside
China’s Dystopian Dreams,” The New York Times, July 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.
com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html; Chris Buckley, Paul
Mozur, and Austin Ramzy, “How China Turned a City Into a Prison,” New York Times,
April 4, 2019,
china-surveillanceprison; Eva Dou, “Chinese Surveillance Expands to Muslims Making
Mecca Pilgrimage,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2018,
chinese-surveillance-expands-to-muslimsmaking- mecca-pilgrimage-1533045703; Josh
Chin and Clement Burge, “Twelve Days in Xinjiang,” The Wall Street Journal, December
19 2017,
state-overwhelms-daily-life-1513700355; Maya Wang, “China’s Algorithms of Repression:
Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App,” (New York: Human Rights
Watch, May 2019),
7. Danielle Cave, Samantha Hoffman, Alex Joske, Fergus Ryan, and Elise Thomas, “Mapping
China’s Tech Giants,” (Barton, Australia: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 18,
2019),; Jonathan E. Hillman
and Maesea McCalpin, “Watching Huawei’s ‘Safe Cities,’” (Washington, DC: Center for
Strategic and International Studies, November 4, 2019),
watching-huaweis-safe-cities; Steven Feldstein, “The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance,”
(Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 17, 2019),
See also Ty Joplin, “China’s Newest Export? Policing Dissidents,” Al Bawaba, May 31, 2018,

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

dissidents-1139230; Chris Daw, “Watch Out: Everything We Do and Say Can Now Be
Monitored and Stored for Future Reference,” The Spectator, July 6, 2019, https://www.spectator.
8. Paul Mozur, “Made in China, Exported to the World: The Surveillance State,” The New
York Times, April 24, 2019,
surveillance-cameras-police-government.html; Joe Parkinson, Nicholas Bariyo, and Josh
Chin, “Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments Spy on Political Opponents,” Wall
Street Journal, August 14, 2019,
african-governments-spy-on-political-opponents-11565793017; Human Rights Watch,
“Myanmar: Facial Recognition System Threatens Rights,” March 12, 2021, https://www.hrw.
9. Reuters, “U.S. Unlikely to Extend Waiver for U.S. Firms to Supply China’s Huawei,” Reuters,
September 26, 2019.
10. “Hearing: China’s Digital Authoritarianism: Surveillance, Influence, and Social Control
(Open),” Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. House of Representatives, May
16, 2019,
11. Jessica Chen Weiss, “A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global
Politics,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2019.
12. One way to think of this is that is a ‘primary’ or ‘index case’—the first documented
instance of a rapidly spreading phenomenon. In epidemiology, an “index case” is the first
documented case. In political science, Finkel refers to the Holocaust as an index case
for the study of genocide and repression: Evgeny Finkel, “The Phoenix Effect of State
Repression: Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust,” American Political Science Review
109, No. 2 (2015): 339–353; see also Charles King, “Can There Be a Political Science of the
Holocaust?” Perspectives on Politics 10:2 (2012): 323–41.
13. As Elizabeth Perry has noted, China’s experimental style of governance, where adaptation
to local conditions is embedded into the CCP’s history and political traditions, lends itself
poorly to formalistic external replication of a “model,” in part because there is no single,
cohesive model to export. For a systematic examination of factors that make diffusion of
Chinese technology more likely, and those that are likely to limit the transferability of
Chinese models of surveillance, see Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Surveillance, Security, and
Liberal Democracy in a Post-COVID World,” International Organization, special issue on
the pandemic and global politics (Fall 2020).
14. “习近平:坚持总体国家安全观 走中国特色国家安全道路 [Xi Jinping: Adhere to the
Concept of Comprehensive National Security and Take the Road of National Security
with Chinese Characteristics],” Xinhua, April 15, 2014,
politics/2014-04/15/c_1110253910.htm; Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “How Does China
Think about National Security?” The China Questions II (Harvard University Press,
forthcoming 2021).
15. See for example, Xi Jinping,  “习近平:提高防控能力, 着力防范化解重大风险 保持经
济持续健康发展社会大局稳定 [Xi Jinping: Improve Prevention and Control Capabilities;
Try to Prevent and Resolve Major Risks; Maintain Sustainable and Healthy Economic
Development and Overall Social Stability],” January 21, 2019,

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

yaowen/2019-01/21/c_1124021825.htm For a summary of Xi’s changes to domestic security,

see Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under Xi Jinping,” China
Leadership Monitor, March 1, 2019,
16. “孟建柱:切实提高政法机关服务大局的能力和水平 [Meng Jianzhu: Effectively
Improve the Ability and Level of Political and Legal Organs to Serve the Overall Situation],”
Renmin fayuan bao, March 18, 2015,;
Susan Trevaskes, Susan, “Rationalizing Stability Preservation Through Mao’s Not-So-
Invisible Hand,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 42:2 (2013): 51–77.
17. Li Yukun, “赵克志: 防范抵御“颜色革命”, 打好政治安全保卫仗 [Zhao Kezhi: Prevent
Color Revolutions and Defend Political Security,” Beijing News, January 18, 2019, http://
18. CCP Central Committee/PRC State Council, “关于加强社会治安防控体系建设
的意见 [Opinion Regarding Strengthening the Construction of a Societal Security
Prevention and Control System],” April 13, 2015,
19. This emphasis on informatization and technology also parallels the emphasis on networked
intelligence and decision-making observable in China’s military strategy. See Taylor Fravel,
Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton, 2019).
20. Chen and Greitens, “Information Capacity and Social Control”; Lin Xuefei, “Zhengfujian
zuzhi xuexi yu zhengce zaishengchan [Organizational Learning among Governments and
Policy Reproduction]”, Gonggong guanli xuebao [ Journal of Public Management] 12/1
(2015): 11–23; National Development and Reform Commission [NDRC], “Guanyu jiaqiang
gonggong anquan shipin jiankong jianshe lianwang [Strengthening Public Security Video
Surveillance Network Construction],” 2015,
21. Both Tianwang and Xueliang are names that come from sayings: “Tianwang huihui, shu er
bulou (Heaven’s net has large mesh, but it lets nothing through)”; and “Renmin qunzhong de
yanjing shi xueliang de (the eyes of the people and the masses are as bright as snow).”
22. “天网工程智能人脸监控系统再迎挑战者 5分22秒被抓获,” Security knowledge network [
安防知识网], March 19, 2018,
23. “In Your Face: China’s All-Seeing State,” BBC, December 10, 2017,
24. Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Julian Gewirtz, “China’s Troubling Vision for the
Future of Public Health,” Foreign Affairs (July 2020),
articles/china/2020-07-10/chinas-troubling-vision-future-public-health. See also Carrie
Cordero and Richard Fontaine, “Health Surveillance Is Here To Stay,” The Wall Street
Journal, March 17, 2020,
to-stay-11585339451; Nicholas Wright, “Coronavirus and the Future of Surveillance,”
Foreign Affairs, April 6, 2020,
25. “Community Grid System Helps China Fight Coronavirus,” Global Times, February 5, 2020,
26. “On the frontline of epidemic prevention and control, nearly 170,000 Hubei grid members

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

act,” February 7, 2020, See also Raymond

Zhong and Paul Mozur, “To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Controls Blanket
China,” New York Times, February 15, 2020,
business/china-coronavirus-lockdown.html; Liza Lin, “China’s Plan to Make Permanent
Tracking on Smartphones Stirs Concern,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2020, https://www.
27. Some of this section draws on Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Dealing with Demand for China’s
Global Surveillance Exports,” Brookings, Global China Project, April 2020. The largest
supplier of these platforms is Huawei, whose “Safe City” (安全城市) solutions “ serve[d] over
700 cities across more than 100 countries and regions” in 2018, triple the figure cited in 2015.
See “2015 Annual Report,” (Shenzhen: Huawei, 2016), 28,
media/corporate/pdf/annual-report/annualreport2015_en.pdf; “2018 Annual Report,”
(Shenzhen: Huawei, 2019), 30,
28. Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting Digital Authoritarianism: The Russian and
Chinese Models,” (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, August 2019), https://www.; Steven Feldstein, “The Global
Expansion of AI Surveillance”; Steven Feldstein, “How Artificial Intelligence is Reshaping
Repression,” Journal of Democracy 30:1 (January 2019), https://carnegieendowment.
29. Myat Pyae Pho, “Huawei to Supply Mandalay’s Safe City Project with Security Cameras,
Equipment,” The Irrawaddy, May 9, 2019,
supply-mandalays-safe-city-project-cameras-security-equipment.html; Cassandra Garrison,
“Safe Like China: in Argentina, ZTE finds eager buyer for surveillance tech,” Reuters, July 5,
“Chinese technology brings falling crime rate to Ecuador,” Xinhua, January 19, 2018, http://
30. The now-deleted video was previously posted at
of-safe-city-in-kenya; see also IHS Markit, The Benefits of Safe Cities (2017). https://cdn.ihs.
31. “Kenya and Huawei Sign Agreement for Digital Transformation,” China Daily, May 16, 2017,
32. IHS Markit, The Benefits of Safe Cities; Sebastian Moss, “Huawei to Build
Konza Data Center and Smart City in Kenya, with Chinese concessional
loan,” April 30, 2019,
33. N.D. Francois, “Huawei’s Surveillance Technology in Kenya: A Safe Bet?” Africa Times, December
18, 2019,
34. Emmanuel Paul, “Security or Privacy Invasion: Huawei Installs More CCTV Cameras
in Cameroon,” Techpoint Africa, August 29, 2019,

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

35. Simon Allison, “Our Cameras Will Make You Safe,” Mail and Globe, November 15, 2019,
36. Data taken from the “Comparative County Crime Figures” tables in the annual crime reports
available on the Kenyan NPS website,
html#. See also Francois, “Huawei’s Surveillance Technology.”
39. Myat Pyae Phyo, “Huawei to Supply Mandalay’s Safe City Project with Cameras, Security
Equipment,” The Irrawaddy, May 9, 2019,
supply-mandalays-safe-city-project-cameras-security-equipment.html; Nan Lwin, “Amid
Int’l Espionage Concerns, Mandalay to Embrace Huawei for “Safe City”,” The Irrawaddy,
June 19, 2019,
concerns-mandalay-embrace-huawei-safe-city-project.html; Shoon Naing, “Royal Capital
to Smart City: Myanmar’s Mandalay Gets High-Tech Makeover, Sparks Espionage Fears,”
Reuters, August 4, 2019,
40. Nyan Hlaing Lin and Min Min, “Hundreds of Huawei CCTV
cameras with facial recognition go live in Naypyitaw,” Myanmar
Now, December 15, 2020,
41. See Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar: Post-Coup Legal Changes Erode Human Rights,”
March 2, 2021,
changes-erode-human-rights; Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar: Facial Recognition
System Threatens Rights,” March 12, 2021,
42. Hannah Beech, “Myanmar Military Deploys Digital Arsenal of Repression in Crackdown,”
New York Times, March 1, 2021,
43. “Burmese Expert: China Helping Military Establish Cyber Firewall,” Voice
of America, February 12, 2021,
44. Parkinson, Bariyo, and Chin, “Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments.”
45. Discussion of these recommendations also appears in the working paper, Greitens, “China’s
Surveillance State at Home and Abroad.”
46. This should not be interpreted as a judgment that those policies are ineffective or unnecessary.
Rather, the thinking is that it makes little sense to tell the US government to do something
it’s already working on doing, and more to raise awareness of approaches that might not (yet)
have been fully considered or acted upon.
47. “Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” White House (Trump Administration),
IPS-Final-Declass.pdf “United States’ Strategic Approach to the People’s
Republic of China,” May 26, 2020,

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

48. “Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act: Imposed Sanctions,” U.S. Department
of State, May 23, 2013, On CEIEC’s
work in Latin America, see Fan Feifei, “Transforming Public Security,” China Daily, January
9, 2017,
49. “Addition of Certain Entities to the Entity List,” Federal Register, October 9,
50. White House, “Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat,” August
6, 2020;
threat-posed-wechat/; U.S. Department of Commerce, “Commerce Department
Prohibits WeChat and TikTok Transactions to Protect the National Security of
the United States,” September 18, 2020,
protect. See also Bobby Chesney, “Commerce Department Reveals Scope of TikTok
and WeChat Sanctions,” Lawfare, September 18, 2020,
51. On a company-specific approach, see David Shepardson, “Five Companies Pose National
Security Threats to US—FCC,” Reuters, March 12, 2021,
usa-china-tech-idINKBN2B5022. On areas where a sectoral approach would be more
effective, see Aynne Kokas, “China Already Has Your Data. Trump’s TikTok and WeChat
Bans Can’t Stop That,” Washington Post, August 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.
52. We know, for example, that the use of health and other surveillance to manage the COVID-
19 pandemic has resulted in worse rights violations in autocracies and hybrid regimes than
in consolidated democracies. It is possible that Chinese surveillance technology would have
similarly disaggregated effects. Palina Kolvani et al, “Pandemic Backsliding: Democracy
Nine Months into the COVID-19 Pandemic,” V-Dem Institute, December 14, 2020; see also
Greitens, “Surveillance, Security, and Liberal Democracy in a Post-COVID World.”
53. See for example, the previously proposed HR 7307: Foreign Advanced Technology
Surveillance Act,
54. “Safe Cities: a Revolution Driven by New ICT,” Huawei,
publications/global/ict_insights/201608271037/ecosystem/201608271557; Koh Hong-
Eng, “How video cameras can make cities safer and contribute to economic growth,” South
China Morning Post, June 3, 2018,
55. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mapping the Future of U.S. China Policy
(Washington: CSIS, 2020),
56. This hypothetical scenario emphasizes the importance of understanding the actual effects of
these technologies on different outcomes of interest.
57. Is the concern data security? Data privacy? An unfair strategic advantage somehow conferred
by phyisically housing the data in China? The potential for global data to be used to refine
algorithms that are then used in domestic repression inside China? The logic of U.S. concern

The Global Impact of China’s Surveillance Technology: Issues for U.S. Policy

remains, as yet, unspecified. Claudia Rosett, “China Uses the UN to Expand its Surveillance
Reach,” Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2020.
58. U.S. Department of State, “The Clean Network,”
59. MacroPolo, “The Global AI Talent Tracker,”
global-ai-talent-tracker/; Paul Mozur and Cade Metz, “A U.S. Secret Weapon in AI: Chinese
Tech Talent,” New York Times, June 9, 2020,
60. Justin Sherman, “Is the U.S. Winning its Campaign Against Huawei?” Lawfare, August 12,
2020,; for a more
skeptical perspective, see Thomas Lairson, David Skidmore, and Wu Xinbo, “Why the US
Campaign Against Huawei Backfired,” The Diplomat, May 13, 2020, https://thediplomat.
com/2020/05/why-the-us-campaign-against-huawei-backfired/; Eric Olander, “Why the US
Campaign Against Huawei Will Fail in Africa,” Africa Report, July 20, 2020, https://www.
61. Greitens, “Dealing with Global Demand for China’s Surveillance Exports,” pp. 5–6.
62. In the event that the COVID-19 pandemic prompts an upsurge in the adoption of Chinese
health-surveillance technology, for example, the United States could work with partners like
South Korea, who have written legislation to protect civil liberties during infectious disease
outbreaks, who can provide a review of lessons learned to other countries based on their own
valuable experiences.
63. “Moratorium call on surveillance technology to end ‘free-for-all’ abuses: UN Expert,” United
Nations, June 25, 2019,; Tom Miles, “UN
Surveillance Expert Urges Global Moratorium on Sale of Surveillance Tech,” Reuters, June
18, 2019,
64. This multipronged effort is characteristic of a larger Chinese project to assume leadership of
international organizations and global governance structures and to rewrite international
rules and norms more to China’s liking. See for example, Anne Applebaum, “How China
Outsmarted the Trump Administration,” The Atlantic (November 2020), https://www.;
“How China is Taking Over UN Agencies, One Vote at a Time,” Wall Street Journal,
September 29, 2020,
organizations-one-vote-at-a-time-11601397208; Sarah Zheng, “UN Intellectual Property
Agency Latest Battleground as China and US Vie For Influence,” South China Morning Post,
March 1, 2020; Kristine Lee, “It’s Not Just the WHO: How China is Moving on the Whole
UN,” Politico, April 15, 2020,
65. Anna Gross, Madhumita Murgia, and Yuan Yang, “Chinese Tech Groups Shaping UN Facial
Recognition Standards,” Financial Times, 1 December 2019,
c3555a3c-0d3e-11ea-b2d6-9bf4d1957a67; see also “Office of the Secretary General of ITU,”
66. Graham Webster and Paul Triolo, “Translation: China Proposes Global Data Security
Initiative,” New America/DigiChina Project, September 7, 2020, https://www.newamerica.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

security-initiative/; for the Chinese-language text, see
67. “Fact Sheet: Quad Summit,” White House, March 12, 2021,
68. Elena Barabantseva and Tao Wang, “Diaspora Policies, Consular Services, and Social
Protection for Chinese Citizens Abroad,” in Migration and Social Protection in Europe and
Beyond, Vol. 3, ed. by J.M. Lafleur and D. Vintila, (Springer: IMISCOE Research Services,
2020),; MacroPolo, “The Global AI Talent
Tracker”; Mozur and Metz, “A U.S. Secret Weapon in AI”; Remco Zwetsloot, “U.S.-China
STEM Talent Decoupling: Background, Policy, and Impact,” National Security Report,
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, October 2020,
69. Miles Kenyon, “WeChat Surveillance Explained,” CitizenLab, May 2020, https://citizenlab.
ca/2020/05/wechat-surveillance-explained/; Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex,
“Repressive Experiences Among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data,” China
Quarterly 242 (2019): 349–375.
70. This is a broader pattern in diasporas whose homelands are under authoritarian rule.
Will Jones and Alexander Betts, Mobilizing the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge
Authoritarianism (Cambridge, 2016).


China’s “New Era” of Influence

in Pakistan: Counterterrorism
and the Limits of the
All-Weather Partnership

Isaac B. Kardon is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and

an Assistant Professor in the Department of Strategic and
Operational Research at the U.S. Naval War College.
Isaac B. Kardon

What is the nature and extent of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) in-
fluence in Pakistan? What, if anything, does that tell us about the general
phenomenon of China’s international influence? This study analyzes China’s
influence in Pakistan on issues of counterterrorism, finding Pakistani military
and civilian leaders quite responsive to their Chinese counterparts across a
range of discrete actions and policies. However effective on such tactical mat-
ters, PRC influence is sharply limited when it comes to questions of wider po-
litical and strategic significance. Pakistan has largely complied with PRC re-
quests for crackdowns on Uyghurs in Pakistan, while resisting Beijing’s “new
era” objectives to actively fight the social and economic “root causes” of ter-
rorism. This somewhat narrow scope for effective Chinese influence is prob-
ably not atypical, because Pakistan is a highly likely case for observing the full
measure of Beijing’s capacity to coerce or cajole other countries into taking its
preferred actions. The evident limits on China’s influence in Pakistan have
direct bearing on U.S. interests and foreign policy.

Policy Recommendations:
● If there is a “competition for influence” underway between the United
States and China, we cannot afford to compete indiscriminately. To be
properly competitive, Americans should compete only where China’s
influence conflicts with defined U.S. interests. As a general rule, these
are coercive exercises of PRC influence that deny autonomy to American
allies and partners.

● Some measure of PRC influence in Pakistan is actually desirable and

(probably) inevitable because of China’s intense focus on peripheral
security. Beijing’s perceptions of threats from regional “terrorism,
extremism, and separatism” give rise to enduring Chinese interests in
building Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity. This generally benefits
the United States and its regional partners, and should not be disrupted
or disincentivized.

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

● The limits of Chinese influence are evident in Pakistan’s inability

or unwillingness to adopt Beijing’s more fundamental prescriptions
on counterterrorism. That China’s closest security partner does not
cooperate on an issue of such high PRC priority should counsel patience
in U.S. policy to counter Chinese influence, which may counter itself
over time.

● China’s “holistic national security outlook” entails a more active Chinese

military, paramilitary, and police posture abroad. A wealthy China
with visible presence in insecure countries increases the attractiveness
of Chinese citizens and assets as targets of attack. There is therefore an
increased likelihood of a significant Chinese counterterrorism operation
in Pakistan (or elsewhere). American policymakers should prepare our
partners for that eventuality, developing plans and communications
channels to ensure that a temporary crisis does not yield a permanent
military foothold for the PLA.

● Pakistani leaders’ refusal to criticize PRC actions in Xinjiang is a product

of China’s direct influence. Even a well-coordinated American policy to
inform the Pakistani public about the inhumane treatment of Muslims in
China will confront major obstacles in a domestic political environment
that is staunchly pro-PRC. Such a policy is nonetheless worth careful
consideration as a means to deter further abuses and introduce
geopolitical costs for China in the Muslim world.

Isaac B. Kardon

In his report to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) in October 2017, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping proclaimed
a “new era” of Chinese politics. In foreign affairs, Xi envisions this new era
marked by “a further rise in China’s international influence,” which will help
the nation become “a global leader in terms of composite national strength
and international influence” by 2049.1 Foreign observers likewise conclude,
often ruefully, that China’s international influence is on the rise. If China’s in-
ternational influence has indeed become as formidable as both its proponents
and detractors suggest, then Pakistan is a highly likely—and strategically con-
sequential—place to observe its fullest expression.
What is the nature and extent of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC)
influence in Pakistan? This question is intrinsically important to U.S. na-
tional security because Pakistan is an unstable, nuclear-armed state with a
major role in the war in Afghanistan and in the broader problem of Islamist
militancy. 2 China may influence Pakistan’s choices and actions in ways that
either damage or advance American interests in the region. In light of the
sharp declines in U.S. aid and security assistance to Pakistan, and the draw-
down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 3 there is a geopolitical premium on bet-
ter understanding Beijing’s interests in Pakistan and assessing its capacity
to realize them. China’s exercise of influence in Pakistan also bears charac-
teristics that allow us to probe the general question of Chinese influence on
other foreign countries.
In light of this practical and conceptual salience, this essay explores the
scope and limits of PRC influence abroad through analysis of China’s rela-
tionship with Pakistan on counterterrorism (CT). After considering the con-
cept of “international influence” and identifying Pakistan as a “most-likely
case” for observing it in the wild, we inventory the various instruments and
modes of influence at China’s disposal in Pakistan on CT matters. Then we
assess the extent to which Pakistan has changed its behavior to comport with
China’s preferred approach.
Overall, the study finds that China’s influence over Pakistan’s approach
to CT is considerable, but mostly limited to discrete tactical actions rather
than broad strategic objectives. Pakistan has largely complied with China’s
demands to crack down on Uyghurs in Pakistan, but has been less receptive

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

to Beijing’s desire for it to change its overall approach to militant groups and
religious extremism in Pakistan. This relatively narrow scope for effective
Chinese influence is probably not atypical.
The Pakistan case also demonstrates that limitations on Chinese influ-
ence are not always salutary. Some level of Chinese influence over Pakistan
(on CT and other policy areas) is probably desirable from a U.S. foreign
policy standpoint. The challenge lies in enabling Pakistan to maintain its
autonomy without foregoing economic and security benefits from the PRC.
Policymakers will need to determine priorities among U.S. interests in
swing states like Pakistan, then seek to minimize the malign PRC influence
that damages U.S. interests while ignoring or even exploiting more benign
forms of PRC influence.

Observing and Assessing Influence

Growing international influence is frequently and casually attributed to the
PRC. Yet we seldom see disciplined assessment of how that purported influ-
ence operates, in respect of which issues, and—equally important—where it
is limited. In order to assess any putative exercise of international influence,
some conceptual brush-clearing is needed. While there will be no resolution
of the long-running debate over how to define and measure influence,4 we
should at least distinguish influence from power, and discuss the ways that in-
fluence can be observed in practice.
Power and influence are too often conflated in analysis of international
politics. They are conceptually related, but may be helpfully distinguished by
treating influence as “the effective exercise of power.”5 That is, we may con-
ceive of power as a resource of a specific state (measured in military, economic,
or other terms). Influence, by contrast, is a relationship and requires an effect
on another state: where state A causes state B to do (or not do) something B
otherwise would have done.6 While influence probably increases along with
material power, that correlation is not always linear and may vary significantly
across issue areas. Certain power resources are not readily converted to practi-
cal, effective influence.7
Growing Chinese power, therefore, does not ipso facto generate Chinese
influence.8 A large portfolio of investments and a blue water navy do not,

Isaac B. Kardon

in themselves, make other states do Beijing’s bidding. A growing body of re-

search and analysis is adopting a sophisticated approach to studying China’s
influence across varied issues and places, yielding valuable insights.9 Notably,
China’s considerable power resources (e.g., its economic and military throw
weight) are not necessarily fungible across domains, thus not easily con-
verted into political influence.10 Other studies find that China’s asymmetric
economic interactions can be a tool of political influence, but find that the
measurable effects of influence tend to appear in symbolic actions rather than
concrete, costly changes to policy.11 Many analysts further find that the most
potent exercises of PRC influence tend to arise when China’s preferences al-
ready align closely with the states it intends to influence, as is often the case
in matters of economic development.12 Other work focuses on countervailing
effects to Chinese influence, and how those vary across different countries and
issues.13 All of this ongoing work suggests “China’s international influence” is
indeed meaningful, but often underspecified.
At minimum, then, we must specify precisely who is influencing whom, by
what means, in order to do what. Such considerations of the operative “scope
and domain”14 of influence are all-important if we are to actually observe and
categorize influence. Further, careful parsing will help to determine which
modes of Chinese influence are actually problematic and illuminate how they
function (and perhaps how they may be disrupted).

The Pathways of Chinese Influence in Pakistan

China’s international influence is hardly uniform across countries or issue
areas, so what can possibly be said generally about “Chinese influence”? One
method is to tease out the limits of Chinese influence by examining a case
that is almost certain to feature a successful exercise of influence. Such “most-
likely” cases are settings in which all of the observed conditions suggest that
the outcome under inquiry should occur.15 If that outcome (Chinese influ-
ence) does not occur (or does not occur in the way we expect), we have good
reason to revise our expectations about where, when, and how the phenom-
enon of Chinese influence occurs elsewhere.
China’s relationship with Pakistan provides such a “most-likely” setting. It
is a quasi-alliance, rooted in an enduring mutual interest in balancing India,

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

and almost certainly China’s closest bilateral relationship.16 In frequent, high-

level engagements, leaders from both sides hyperbolically describe an “all-
weather partnership” that is “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the
Indian Ocean, and sweeter than honey.”17 The Pakistani public is consistently
more favorable towards China than is the public of any other foreign coun-
try.18 Affinity is not equivalent to influence, of course, but the intimacy—and
deep asymmetry—of the relationship across all domains provides multiple,
mutually reinforcing avenues of potential PRC influence.
First, the overall Sino-Pakistani relationship is highly asymmetric in eco-
nomic terms. Pakistan runs a large, persistent trade deficit with China, which
is also by far its largest trading partner by value (accounting for roughly 20
percent of Pakistan’s overall trade portfolio).19 This trade imbalance alone cre-
ates a source of coercive influence for China, because China may summarily
alter the terms of trade to Pakistan’s detriment.20 China is also Pakistan’s larg-
est investor and creditor, accounting for 40 percent of Pakistan’s total FDI
since 2010 and roughly 40 percent of its external debt.21 These figures are neg-
ligible in relative terms for China, with its vast overseas trade and investment
portfolio. This creates a stark asymmetry that we expect to confer influence on
China, which faces far lower costs from exiting or changing the terms of trade,
investment, or lending than does Pakistan.22
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the most visible mani-
festation of China’s overwhelming asymmetric presence as an economic actor
within Pakistan. CPEC projects comprise a staggering $53 billion in “com-
pleted, ongoing, and under consideration schemes.”23 It is the largest eco-
nomic development program in Pakistan’s history, and it has become a cen-
tral theme in domestic politics.24 While there are some vocal opponents to
the program25 and no lack of grumbling about its sluggish pace and shifting
focus, 26 CPEC has mobilized and empowered a large pro-China constituency
in Pakistan that shares China’s interest in further developing bilateral eco-
nomic relations.27 Adding to this huge economic asymmetry is China’s recur-
ring role as the lender of last resort to Pakistan, which has faced serial balance
of payments crises and drawn thirteen IMF bailouts in the past 30 years.28
The military and strategic asymmetries are even more pronounced than
those in the economic sphere. China’s “elemental interest in South Asia” is
to maintain Pakistan’s ability to balance India, so Beijing has seen fit to help

Isaac B. Kardon

Pakistan acquire a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability for that
purpose. 29 China has been far and away its largest arms supplier, accounting
for 75 percent of Pakistan’s arms imports in the period 2014–2019.30 These
transactions involve major combat platforms like surface-to-air missiles,
submarines, frigates, and fighter jets, as well as items suitable for CT opera-
tions like unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters, surveillance hardware, and
small arms.31
These arms sales are just one element of a close and multifaceted strate-
gic relationship. China holds more military leader dialogues, combined exer-
cises, port calls, and other military engagements with Pakistan than it does
with any other nation, save Russia (60 in the period 2014–2019).32 Moreover,
the military-to-military relationship is the centerpiece of the overall bilat-
eral relationship. Pakistan Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi is
Beijing’s preferred interlocutor, while civilian leaders in Islamabad are often
sidelined. Civilian leadership from each side routinely meets with the other’s
military brass—particularly on CT matters. Recently, Xi Jinping sat down
with Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff and encouraged him to “take resolute
measures against terrorist forces”;33 the PRC Defense Minister, Wei Fenghe,
met Pakistan’s Prime Minister and President and announced an intention to
“push the relationship between the two militaries to a higher level.”34 These
are not at all routine contacts in other bilateral relationships.

Counterterrorism: China’s foremost

security priority in Pakistan
The scope of Sino-Pakistani security interactions is broad, ranging from large-
scale combined combat exercises to friendly games of basketball.35 CT, how-
ever, is a singular priority for bilateral military, paramilitary, and intelligence
engagements.36 It is focus of more bilateral military exercises than any other
operational area.37 CT is clearly at the top of the agenda for PRC and Pakistani
leaders, but their preferred approaches to the problem differ in observable ways.
This difference makes it an arena in which an influence attempt is most likely
to occur, because Chinese leaders perceive a high-stakes threat and hold lever-
age that might bring Pakistan around to the PRC’s preferred approach to coun-
terterrorism.38 The degree to which they are successful in causing Pakistan to

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

adopt what China considers to be effective measures is thus a useful test of the
extent and limitations of PRC influence.
The basic elements of PRC preferences on CT are evident, and plainly com-
municated to Pakistani partners. These preferences have grown more intense
and more demanding on Pakistan over time. They have evolved from a nar-
row desire to check instability within Xinjiang to a more ambitious aim to
control the Uyghur diaspora and other perceived terrorist threats outside of
China’s borders.39 This shift from a basically defensive posture to a pro-active,
international, and offensive approach to CT abroad allows us to observe the
degree to which Pakistani leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (the Pakistani
Army headquarters, and the locus of power on security and strategy matters)
have correspondingly changed their actions with respect to Beijing’s high-
priority CT issues. While we cannot observe PRC demands on CT directly,
we can observe major changes in the PRC approach to the issue in this “new
era” of more ambitious efforts to “prevent and control” perceived threats from
abroad. A grasp of the PRC’s CT priorities is a necessary predicate for any ac-
count of its exercise of influence in that domain.
The shift to a more pro-active or even offensive approach to terror threats
overseas is closely associated with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. CT fig-
ures prominently in Xi Jinping’s “holistic national security concept” (总体国
家安全观), which is being implemented by new state security organs with
augmented resources and authorities.40 Beginning in 2014, Xi urged a shift
to “decisive measures” against terrorism. He prescribed a CT strategy less fo-
cused on disrupting discrete threats, and more broadly calibrated to “safeguard
national security and social stability” as its overarching aim.41 In the wake of a
series of attacks on Chinese citizens within the PRC and abroad in the period
2012–2015,42 Xi began to argue that “terrorism has become the most serious
and urgent security challenge we face today,” and framed the problem as a
transnational one requiring greatly upgraded foreign cooperation.43
Responding to this leadership priority, China’s CT policies taken on a
new international dimension. The 2015 PRC Anti-Terrorism Law authorizes
highly invasive but vaguely-defined powers for Chinese security forces, and
calls for intensified international cooperation on CT operations, financing,
and intelligence.44 Chinese experts expect a “new trend of international co-
operation against terrorism” marked by greater Chinese attentiveness to

Isaac B. Kardon

“early warning and prevention” as well as “on-site operations” and “clean-up”

to tackle a growing threat.45 In February 2021, Xi signed off on new PLA
Central Military Commission regulations on “international military cooper-
ation work.” These rules further define and standardize the roles that Chinese
forces will play abroad, and prescribe greater “coordination of internal and ex-
ternal resources” to that end.46 The PLA and the People’s Armed Police (PAP,
the principle domestic security force) are postured, trained, and equipped to
undertake foreign CT operations, either unilaterally or (more likely) in com-
bination with another country.
The PRC’s broader national security apparatus is also less passive, increas-
ingly oriented around the mission to “prevent and control” (防控) both in-
ternal and external terrorism threats. From intrusive surveillance and ar-
bitrary detention to large-scale social engineering efforts, CCP leaders are
aggressively deploying a wide array of tools and technologies in the name of
CT.47 From Beijing’s standpoint, the “three evil forces” (三股势力) of ter-
rorism, extremism, and ethnic separatism are conjoined security problems
that warrant aggressive action inside and outside Chinese borders.48 LTG
Qin Tian (then PAP chief of staff, currently PAP Vice Commander) recently
proposed that the military, the police, the PAP, and civilian agencies form a
“new trinity” that seeks “joint efforts with our neighbors”—Pakistan prom-
inent among them.49 Since 2015, the PLA officially shoulders the “strategic
task” of conducting “operations against infiltration, separatism and terror-
ism so as to maintain China’s political security and social stability.”50 This is
an internal-external mission, based on a perceived threat from China’s rug-
ged western regions and bordering countries. These concerted preparations
for possible CT action in a foreign theater entails a substantial change in the
PLA’s international orientation, with direct bearing on Beijing’s relations
with Islamabad.51

Extreme Priority on Xinjiang

The PRC policy of extreme repression and perhaps genocide in the Xinjiang
Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) reflects the intensity and purpose of
Xi’s “holistic” and unapologetically high-handed national security outlook.52
The perceived threat of “East Turkestan independence”—that is, ethnic

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

“separatism” pursued by some part of China’s Turkic Muslim population—is

framed as an urgent CT issue that requires coordinated transboundary ac-
tion.53 PRC analysts have long viewed the rare terrorist incidents in China as
“inextricably linked” to ideology, training, financing, and resources furnished
by Uyghur-linked militant groups operating in Pakistan (and Afghanistan).54
PRC leadership has moved aggressively to prosecute these perceived transna-
tional terrorist threats.
Beijing seeks to use Pakistan as “the bridgehead of China’s counterter-
rorism operations” because of the close bilateral relationship and the pur-
ported nexus between Pakistan and the terror threat in China.55 LTG Qin
embraces this transboundary approach because, he claims, the “three evil
forces in Xinjiang” have been aided and abetted by co-religionists who have
“infiltrated” China’s rugged 600 kilometer border with Pakistan to conduct
attacks throughout China.56 Even local PRC police forces are authorized to
track and coordinate law enforcement with Pakistan against the various pro-
posed infiltration routes.57 The advent of denser cross-border economic link-
ages through CPEC (initiated in 2015) has only heightened this fear among
Chinese security experts, and intensified Beijing’s efforts to control terrorism
in Pakistan.58 As a preliminary observation, then, we can say that CT has
become an even higher PRC priority in recent years. It is an arena in which
Chinese leadership is both motivated and well-equipped to employ influence
to bring about Pakistani cooperation.
Yet Pakistani leaders do not manifestly share their Chinese counterparts’
threat perceptions about “East Turkestan independence.” Pakistan faces a
far more complex and dire threat from a wide array of militant groups with
varying political and social objectives; some of these groups are vital ele-
ments of Pakistan’s own national strategy regarding India and Afghanistan.59
The Uyghurs are the least of their domestic security problems.60 While the
Pakistani military and intelligence services communicate and coordinate ex-
tensively with their PRC counterparts, the thrust of the Pakistani CT efforts
cannot be assumed to align with Chinese priorities. In fact, cultivating and
exploiting some level of extremism and militancy is a core part of Pakistan’s
national security strategy.61
Chinese security officials recognize this non-alignment of preferences
and actively seek to prevail on Pakistan to adopt a different approach. There

Isaac B. Kardon

is seldom, if ever, a public “ask” from one official to another; instead, we see
PRC leaders promoting and incentivizing different forms of cooperation with
Pakistan’s military and police forces towards ends determined by China’s
“holistic” view of terrorism.62 We will not directly observe whether and how
Pakistan has obliged PRC requests on CT. The closely held nature of any oper-
ational information and related communications means there will be no pub-
lic expressions beyond banal commitments to jointly pursue CT. However,
certain inferences are possible based on both sides’ revealed preferences. We
can therefore judge actions on the basis of whether Pakistan has indeed taken
significant steps to advance China’s priorities in ways that clearly depart from
its prior actions.63
This method yields the conclusion that China has indeed influenced
Pakistan to pursue certain PRC objectives, but only at a tactical level. On
broader strategic questions of how—and indeed whether—to fundamentally
address the militancy that threatens China, Pakistan has demurred. Rather
than adopt China’s preferred method to systematically uproot the extremist
networks that enable Uyghur militancy, Pakistan has maintained its posture
of tacit acceptance (and even support) for such groups, dealing with Uyghur
issues separately.
On which specific issues can we identify specific PRC preferences at odds
with those of Pakistani leaders? Rhetorically, at least, there is little daylight be-
tween these “iron brothers” when it comes to announcing CT cooperation.64
However, we can assess action on specific policy objectives. The Chinese lead-
ership has focused specifically on influencing Pakistan to 1) crack down on
alleged Uyghur militants and 2) prevent attacks on Chinese citizens and as-
sets, both in the PRC and in Pakistan. Finally, Beijing has devoted extraor-
dinary resources to Pakistan’s economic development in order to 3) promote
social stability and economic development needed to address the “root causes”
of terrorism in Pakistan, religious extremism prominent among them. Even
though the official bilateral messaging on all of these issues is relentlessly up-
beat, we can assess the extent to which Pakistan’s actions on CT in the period
since 2015 reflect changes in line with the intensified PRC priority to degrade
perceived terrorist threats.

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

Pakistan’s response to China’s Uyghur “problem”

Pakistani officials have long obliged Beijing on issues concerning the Uyghurs
(and other Chinese Muslims) in Pakistan. Close observers of the relationship
believe that overall, “when it comes to dealing with Uyghurs, Islamabad has
been willing to act at Beijing’s behest.”65 But are they actions that Pakistan
would not otherwise have been likely to take? To what extent has China in-
fluenced Pakistan to adopt a more aggressive approach to Uyghurs since the
initiation of significantly harsher policies in Xinjiang?
To put this dynamic in context, it bears noting that Chinese and Pakistani
military and intelligence services have had quite substantial mutual dealings
with a range of extremist, militant groups over the decades. In fact, China
bears partial responsibility for seeding the Islamist militancy that plagues
Pakistan (and Afghanistan) today. In close cooperation with Pakistan’s
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and army, Beijing provided vital arms, train-
ing, and logistical support to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in the 1980s.66 These fighters included Chinese Uyghurs as well
as the future founders of the Taliban and other regional militant groups who
subsequently gave succor to Muslims fleeing repression in China.67
China’s objectives during this early period were limited to preventing these
Uyghurs from independently organizing and targeting China. Pakistan’s gov-
ernment and security services facilitated specific PRC requests by prevailing
on militant groups to absorb Uyghur fighters, thus preventing them from es-
tablishing independent camps and madrassas from which to launch attacks
on China.68 Chinese officials also engaged directly to Taliban leadership in
the 1990s to keep China off of the target list for global jihad, becoming the
first non-Muslim state to send an official representative to take “tea with the
Taliban” and meet the group’s emir, Mullah Omar.69 Osama Bin Laden ex-
cluded China from al-Qaeda’s global jihad and professed to not associating
with any Chinese Muslims, nor caring for their plight.70 With Pakistan’s help,
China in this period prevented Uyghur militants from joining forces with
more capable and established militant groups.
Still, Beijing pointed to a Pakistani nexus for the scattered, small-scale at-
tacks in Xinjiang throughout the 1990s.71 Islamabad obliged with periodic
raids on training camps, deportations and extraditions of Uyghurs, and other
measures to thwart the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM, or 东

Isaac B. Kardon

伊运), the armed group that Beijing held responsible for these incidents.72
Because of the narrow scope of this Chinese demand and the relative unim-
portance of ETIM to Pakistani security agencies, these actions did not im-
pinge on Pakistan’s reliance on irregular militant groups as part of its broader
military strategy toward Afghanistan and India.73 Rare Chinese protests to
the Pakistan Interior Ministry, border closures, and visa denials for Pakistanis
seeking entry to Xinjiang are the mild coercive tools employed by Beijing in
this period to induce Pakistan’s compliance.74
The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 fundamentally changed
this arrangement. The operation flushed Uyghur fighters (and many other
groups) from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas. The
ETIM group lost refuge with its Taliban-backed hosts in Afghanistan and
soon found itself targeted by Pakistani (and American) forces. In the early
years of the Afghanistan campaign, ETIM leaders were captured or killed
by Pakistani forces, presumably at least in part at Beijing’s behest.75 Though
Chinese spokespeople continue to rail against ETIM, it appears likely that
the group more or less ceased to exist due to steady degradation during the pe-
riod 2001–2003.76 However, by 2008 a successor group, the Turkestan Islamic
Party (TIP) had emerged, which would go on to be supported by al-Qaeda
and later the Islamic State.77
By 2014, TIP leaders were still active on Pakistani territory, publicly tak-
ing credit for attacks in the PRC and calling for other jihadis to make com-
mon cause against China’s anti-Muslim repression: “China is not only our
enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims,” a TIP leader, Abdullah Mansour,
said in an interview with Reuters.78 He continued: “We have plans for many
attacks in China. We have a message to China that East Turkestan people
and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any
more. Muslims will take revenge.” 79 The TIP emir, Abdul Haq al-Turkestani
is reported to sit on the al-Qaeda shura (leadership council), in which role he
has orchestrated attacks within China and sought to further publicize the
Uyghur plight among other jihadi groups.80
Pakistan’s leaders regularly commit to addressing China’s concerns, vow-
ing to “continue to resolutely fight the East Turkestan Islamic Movement
terrorist forces.”81 Reforms to Pakistan’s domestic security apparatus (includ-
ing widening of the scope and reach of its new CT legislation) in the period

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

2014–2015 show the distinct mark of China’s aggressive national security

outlook.82 Chinese specialists heralded the series of reforms in Pakistan’s
CT law enforcement and judicial processes,83 and especially welcomed bans
on Uyghurs and putatively-linked Central Asian groups.84 Pakistani agencies
have acceded to requests for extraditions and otherwise put official pressure
on a group that likely does not exist in any strength. These adjustments of
Pakistani CT policy may comport with PRC preferences, but they also reflect
Rawalpindi’s varying appetite for conflict with militant groups. Major opera-
tions like the siege of Lal Masjid and Operation Zarb-e-Azb have frequently
been portrayed as results of Chinese influence,85 but can be more efficiently
explained in terms of Pakistan’s own threat perceptions.86
When China’s persistent requests for decisive actions against Uyghurs align
with the Pakistan Army’s desires to go on the offensive against militants, they
tend to honor Chinese desires. The most recent such offensive, Zarb-e-Azb,
began in 2014 after a brazen attack at the Karachi airport and a subsequent
large-scale assault on a school in Peshawar—not in prior years when Beijing
had initially urged Pakistan to clear out parts of Waziristan, where PRC in-
telligence claimed attacks in Beijing and Kunming had originated.87 Chinese
analysts believe some of the timing of Zarb-e-Azb to be attributable to Xi
Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in April 2015 to launch the CPEC program,88 but
this sequence alone is no reason to attribute the cause of this large-scale, costly
action to Chinese preferences. In announcing the “elimination of ETIM from
our tribal areas” in as a result of the operation,89 Pakistan’s defense minister
nodded to Beijing’s preference but did not elaborate further on an operation
that scrupulously avoided targeting militants who advance Pakistan’s objec-
tives vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan.
Pakistani leaders may well have taken Chinese views into account when
taking steps that PLA brass heralded as “decisive, bold, and hard blow for ter-
rorists.”90 Yet that Chinese influence did not impinge on Pakistan’s broader
strategic prerogatives. Reports indicate that as many as 80 percent of the mili-
tants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were alerted to the pend-
ing action by sympathetic elements in Pakistan’s military and intelligence
services.91 Uyghur fighters, among many others, were able to disperse back
into Afghanistan to merge with al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.92 Uyghur
fighters have subsequently moved on to fight in significant numbers in Syria

Isaac B. Kardon

and southeast Asia, prompting fears that these battle-hardened militants will
ultimately return to launch attacks against China.93 Pakistan’s penchant for
periodic purges of “bad Taliban” groups is sometimes consonant with PRC
aims, but does not reflect decisive PRC influence beyond the tactical question
of targeting certain Uyghur militants.
Without significant numbers of Uyghur fighters on Pakistani soil since
2015, China’s influence on this issue continues to be observable in Pakistani
leaders’ comments—or lack thereof—on the brutal campaign underway in
Xinjiang. The “muzzle” on this issue is explicable only in terms of China’s
sensitivity on the issue and its desire to leverage “Pakistan’s unique position
of political voice in the Muslim community,”94 as one PRC analyst puts it.
China has launched a steady stream of counter-programming to the emerging
Western narrative on its atrocious treatment of its Muslim minority, and has
been quick to recruit Pakistan’s support in this endeavor.
Pakistan’s current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, came into office in 2018
as the full extent of Chinese atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang were com-
ing to light. Given Khan’s self-styled role as a voice for Muslim causes (e.g.,
in Kashmir and Palestine), many critics believe he should have railed against
Beijing’s persecution of Muslims. However, even the barest mention of
Xinjiang by Pakistani leaders has elicited a harsh response from their Chinese
counterparts.95 Khan quickly and repeatedly spoke to press on the issue, first
denying any knowledge of it whatsoever, then opting to “say one thing about
China” to al-Jazeera: “For Pakistan, China has been the best friend...We are
really grateful to the Chinese government, so we have decided that any issues
we have had with China we will handle privately.”96
Khan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf was even more effusive in ex-
onerating the PRC, telling an Indian interviewer that “we know everything we
need to know about the Uyghurs and…we have absolutely zero concerns about
this non-issue. Clearly, we are 100 percent satisfied with our Chinese friends,
full stop.”97 Along with 49 other states, Pakistan issued a statement to the
United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2019 to further lend its dip-
lomatic support for China’s “CT” program in Xinjiang, stating: “Faced with
the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series
of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including set-
ting up vocational education and training centers. Now safety and security has

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic
groups there are safeguarded.”98
Given Khan’s willingness to champion Muslim causes in other contexts,99
his reticence on China’s explicit persecution of his co-religionists is appropri-
ately explained by Chinese influence. This diplomatic “muzzle” should be re-
garded as a relatively narrow, if effective and non-trivial, exercise of Chinese
influence on Pakistan’s approach to the Uyghur question.

Prevent Attacks on Chinese Personnel and Projects

While Pakistan-based Uyghur fighters are no longer a realistic threat, Chinese
citizens in Pakistan are threatened by a range of nationalist and Islamist mili-
tant groups operating throughout the country. China’s rapidly expanding eco-
nomic footprint since 2015—some of it large-scale infrastructure in insecure
regions—has turned Chinese people and assets into prime targets for politi-
cal violence intended to hurt Pakistani elites and express dissatisfaction only
loosely related to China. In light of this acute threat and the clear Chinese
interest in diminishing it, Pakistan has again proved willing and able to take
extraordinary tactical measures. However, Beijing’s more “holistic” approach
to combatting terrorism has not yet prevailed in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Chinese leaders propose to treat the fundamental social ills that they believe
breed violence, like “extreme” or radical religious beliefs, while their Pakistani
counterparts show no such inclination or capacity.
As a first indication of this failure of effective influence, China has been
disproportionately targeted by a wide range of terrorist groups in Pakistan.
According to Chinese CT researchers from the PRC Police Academy, “the
data confirm that Chinese targets have grown to become the primary foreign
targets of domestic terrorist attacks in Pakistan.”100 Over the period of the
study (2001–2018), Chinese enterprises and personnel were the victims of
some 26 attacks, 3 of them suicide bombings, leading to 60 deaths and 32
casualties. The authors compare this unfavorably to the number of attacks on
Americans (8) and conclude that there is a “hint of negligence” on Pakistan’s
part, but also a phenomenon of growing Chinese visibility in Pakistan ren-
dering PRC projects an attractive target for anti-state militants—not Uyghur
groups.101 The authors conclude that “Pakistan’s national armed forces are

Isaac B. Kardon

mainly responsible for military operations against India,”102 so China might

be better served by relying on private sector security rather than their hosts’
military and law enforcement.103 Of course we can only speculate on the coun-
terfactual—what would be the extent of attacks on Chinese in Pakistan ab-
sent Beijing’s pressure—but we may interpret Chinese expressions of displea-
sure with the outcome as evidence of a deficit of PRC influence on this count.
Pakistan has evidently responded to these Chinese concerns with signifi-
cant resources and attention. Yet high profile attacks persist against Chinese
engineers, officials, laborers, businesspeople, and tourists—notably, a 2018 as-
sault on the PRC Consulate in Karachi and another on the Pearl-Continental
Hotel at Gwadar port.104 In the face of mounting security threats to Chinese
projects, a retired army general whom the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs
spokesman described as “an old friend of the Chinese government and mili-
tary,”105 Asim Bajwa, was tapped in late 2019 take over management of the
civilian CPEC Authority. The Pakistan army has also furnished a “Special
Security Detachment” (SSD) of between 15,000 and 17,000 armed personnel
detailed specifically to protect Chinese nationals and projects.106 Even with
this large security detail, Chinese personnel and projects are typically pro-
tected by a mix of military, paramilitary, police, and private security contrac-
tors, and provided with secure housing and work areas.107
Ultimately, however, Beijing has pressed for Pakistan to adopt an approach to
CT that aligns more with Xi Jinping’s national security concept—especially by
addressing terrorism as a fundamentally social and economic problem requiring
intrusive and persistent action well beyond periodic military strikes.108 Chinese
observers perceive Pakistan to be in an “endless loop” of terrorist attacks and
aggressive CT responses that is worsening over time.109 The diagnosed reasons
for this are insufficient attention to what Beijing regards as the fundamental
origins of terrorism. While Beijing has publicly welcomed the Pakistan Army’s
several tactical moves against Uyghur militants,110 a former PRC Ambassador to
Pakistan and other close official interlocutors urge a strategic shift in Pakistan’s
approach from militarized CT to a focus on “improving the economic and so-
cial development of the backward areas of Pakistan and China, and thus provid-
ing a ‘cure’ for the terrorist threat in the region.”111
A significant part of this Chinese prescription for social and economic
development is to minimize the political role of “religious extremists” and

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

p­ urveyors of “political Islam” who create the “conditions for militancy to

grow and flourish.”112 Yet Chinese influence has not evidently touched this
facet of Pakistani society. PRC specialists recognize that “the Pakistani gov-
ernment sees [religious extremist groups] as a ‘strategic resource’ and secretly
supports them.”113 The license that the Pakistani army and state grant to re-
ligious extremists runs directly contrary to the overriding PRC concern to
“keep the Korans out of Xinjiang” and prevent the further radicalization
of Chinese Muslims and “shake their belief in the ‘jihad’ worldview.”114 Xi
Jinping instructed local officials in Xinjiang during the September 2020
Third Central Xinjiang Work Conference to “adhere to the direction of
Sinicization of Islam in Xinjiang and realize the healthy development of re-
ligion.”115 Of course Xi is discreet enough not to prescribe policies for “the
healthy development of religion” inside Pakistan, but the Chinese interest in
a “deradicalized” Pakistan is apparent.
Chinese officials may be cognizant of the limits of PRC influence on this
score. Even if issued by Xi Jinping himself, policy prescriptions that impinge
on the Islamic character of Pakistan and disregard its fundamental social ar-
rangements are unlikely to take. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s cooperation on this
count has fallen far short of Beijing’s expectations. Beijing’s persistent court-
ing of the Taliban as well as non-militant Islamic faith groups in Pakistan re-
flects a continued effort to diminish or contain the perceived threat of politi-
cal Islam without the assistance of the Pakistani state or army.116 Impatience
with Pakistan’s efforts is among the reasons Beijing dropped its opposition in
2018 to Pakistan’s placement on the Financial Action Task Force “gray list”
of countries under increased monitoring due to “strategic deficiencies in their
regimes” against terrorist financing.117 China’s 2019 decision to cease block-
ing the U.N. Security Council’s 1267 Committee’s terrorist sanctions on the
Jaish-e-Mohammed emir Masood Azhar is another public signal of Beijing’s
frustration with Pakistan’s unwillingness to take more decisive actions to
sever its co-dependence with extremist and militant religious groups.118
China’s inhumane policy and action in Xinjiang reflects, in part, a sober
view about the limits of Pakistan’s susceptibility to influence on this key issue.
The CCP Central Committee’s May 2020 “Guiding Opinion on Promoting
Development of the Western Regions in the New Era” exhorted local officials
to “coordinate the two major issues of development and security, and make

Isaac B. Kardon

better use of the national security barrier in the western region.”119 The im-
perative to develop a “national security barrier” reflects Chinese leadership’s
assessment that development alone is insufficient. China’s hedge against
Pakistan’s inability to carry out China’s preferences entails extraordinary mo-
bilization of military, paramilitary, police, and militia forces in Xinjiang.120 If
Beijing’s leaders were confident in Pakistan’s capacity to pursue CT by rooting
out religious extremism, such an aggressive posture would not be necessary.

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations

The Sino-Pakistani relationship on counterterrorism highlights the extent of
PRC influence on a geopolitically important state. Beijing has expressed a set
of clear preferences on CT, and there is ample evidence that Pakistan has al-
tered its behavior to accommodate and even advance certain Chinese priori-
ties. Foremost among these priorities has been to recruit Pakistan’s assistance
in degrading the perceived threat from Uyghur militants. Pakistan’s security
services have readily obliged on this discrete tactical aim—and even leveraged
U.S. firepower to do it.121 Beijing’s influence has been less effective in chang-
ing Pakistan’s approach to other groups with whom it has more complex ties,
frustrating China’s broader strategic aim to undermine the socio-economic
conditions in which Islamist militancy thrives. While Islamabad has wel-
comed streams of Chinese aid and investment, it has not proved susceptible
to influence on the more fundamental question of how (or indeed whether) to
confront religious extremism in Pakistan.
The case also demonstrates certain mechanisms through which China
exercises influence abroad, offering a few insights that may be generalizable
to other countries. The extreme asymmetries of China’s relationship with
Pakistan offer nearly ideal circumstances for unfettered influence, yet clear
constraints exist. While there are sound reasons to consider Pakistan an un-
representative, outlier case because of the intimacy of its strategic relationship
with China and the extraordinary nature of its terrorist challenge, this is in
fact an analytic virtue. Limits on Chinese influence in Pakistan are likely to
be even more pronounced in countries with which China does not enjoy such
privileged access and asymmetric leverage. America’s own struggles to success-
fully influence even our smaller allies should be instructive in this regard.

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

If there is indeed an American “competition for influence” with China

underway (as the 2017 National Security Strategy proposes),122 there is a
policy premium on understanding where China’s interests are in fact competi-
tive with our own. This condition does not so obviously obtain in the case in
Pakistan, where both the United States and China have separately sought to
bolster the troubled nation’s CT capacity. Chinese security analysts tend to
share this study’s conclusion that PRC influence has failed to bring about de-
sired Pakistani CT actions—but also conclude that so, too, has American in-
fluence.123 Both great powers have been frustrated in part because of “conflict-
ing interests and needs that pull [Pakistan] in different directions,” in PAP’s
assessment.124 This euphemistic statement nonetheless captures a hard truth
about Pakistan: because of the tenuous balance of power among the army, the
civilian state, the intelligence services, and the various religious organizations,
influence exerted on one may well diminish influence on another. Even if the
army is the kingmaker and China’s primary partner, a contentious political
arena blunts even the most potent influence. China’s recurrent resort to “tea
with the Taliban”125 reflects the futility of PRC efforts to bring Pakistani of-
ficials around to handling CT affairs in desired fashion.
The payoff in assessing China’s influence on this issue, as elsewhere, lies in
determining when and how that influence is in fact detrimental to U.S. inter-
ests. Counteracting China’s influence in all places and all times is beyond any
state or coalition of states’ capacities—and highly illogical. While China does
not pursue the same objectives in Pakistan as does the United States, it is also
likely to continue furnishing Pakistan with vital capabilities and resources
that will degrade (some) militant groups of concern to the United States. If
Beijing were to become completely disillusioned with Pakistan’s willingness or
capacity to tend to its interests, it will likely contemplate much more coercive
action—to include using Pakistan as a platform for its own CT operations
and wider power projection in the region. That outcome is less desirable, as
it positions China to project power more effectively across the Indian Ocean
and greater Middle East.126
Some degree of PRC influence over Pakistan’s choices on CT—especially
of the narrow, tactical variety observed in this study—is probably complemen-
tary with American interests. To maintain that complementarity, some pre-
emptive outreach to Pakistan (and other likely sites of Chinese CT) should be

Isaac B. Kardon

on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. We can limit risks by appropriately prepar-
ing our partners for that eventuality, developing plans and communications
channels to ensure that a temporary crisis does not yield a permanent military
foothold for the PLA.
Other manifestations of China’s influence in Pakistan are less agreeable to
U.S. interests. One example is the Chinese “muzzle” on Pakistani criticism of
its Uyghur policy. By muting Pakistan’s voice as potentially strong supporter
of Chinese Muslims, China faces less cost for continuing its domestic abuses
and little fallout in its relations with the broader Muslim world. The same
phenomena is evident in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim nations that
have thus far deferred to Beijing’s sensitivity on this issue. Conceivably, the
United States could influence Pakistani public opinion to be more critical of
China’s treatment of Muslims. Vocal, visible figures like Imran Khan might
alter the perceptions of Muslims elsewhere about the plight of their co-reli-
gionists. Pakistani officials may lack appetite for public criticism of China, but
to the extent that Chinese actions become less popular among their constitu-
ents, that appetite may grow. As part of a coordinated effort involving Gulf
states and other major Islamic organizations, a targeted campaign to shame
China for crimes against humanity may be a potent policy with humanitarian
and strategic benefits.
As a general matter, this study encourages a broader reckoning with some
of the limits on China’s exercise of influence in other places and cases. It re-
affirms the long-standing finding that influence is not easily fungible across
domains.127 China’s economic largesse in Pakistan does not easily translate
into direct leverage over CT matters; China’s massive strategic support for
Pakistan’s military does not induce that same military to ensure that China’s
preferred civilian leaders remain in power in Islamabad. We should not ex-
pect easy conversions of China’s considerable economic bandwidth into di-
rect political influence in other countries. The greater the asymmetry, though,
the greater potential for China to threaten economic exit—so policymakers
should be most alert to cases where such coercive influence is possible.
Most effective exercises of influence are nearly impossible to detect because
both parties to the influence relationship want more or less the same thing.128
As a threshold consideration for policy, then, those exercises of Chinese in-
fluence that are most problematic are coercive in nature. Coercive influence

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

entails a threat or use of punishment to bring about compliance.129 It differs

categorically from influence of the persuasive or remunerative type, as well
as from the more diffuse influence that allows states to shape discourses, es-
tablish institutional standards, or set organizational agendas.130 While there
are many instances in which such non-coercive forms of influence may lead to
undesired outcomes, coercive influence is the most potentially malign form.
It deprives other states of their autonomy, limiting their freedom of action.131
Emphasis on cases where China is coercive rather than simply influential is a
first step towards prioritizing issues of importance.
The precipitous decline in U.S. aid and outreach to Pakistan during the
period since 2017, especially acute on CT matters, has maximized the influ-
ence China can wield in this case. This is not necessarily a problem. This epi-
sode reveals important information about the limits of Chinese influence and
saddles Beijing with primary responsibility for the Pakistan’s stability and sol-
vency. The danger in abandoning Pakistan to China’s tender mercies lies, iron-
ically, in Beijing finding its influence inadequate and resorting to ever more
extreme, destabilizing, and costly efforts to combat perceived terrorist threats.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of any
agency of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

The author thanks Cyril Almeida, CDRE Naghman Chadhry, Daniel
Markey, Arif Rafiq, and Andrew Small for valuable comments and critiques
of the study.

1. Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All
Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New
Era,” Speech at 19th National Party Congress, 18 October 2017, official Xinhua translation
at Jinping’s_report_at_19th_CPC_
National_Congress.pdf, pp. 6, 25.
2. Council on Foreign Relations, “Islamist Militancy in Pakistan,” 2021, CFR Global Conflict
3. Congressional Research Service, “Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military

Isaac B. Kardon

Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2020,” 12 March 2019, Congressional Research

4. Key studies of influence include: Albert O. Hirshman, National Power and the Structure
of Foreign Trade, (Berkeley: University of California Press 1945); Harold D. Lasswell and
Abraham Kaplan, Power and Society, (New Haven: Yale University Press 1950); Robert
A. Dahl, Modern Political Analysis, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1963); Thomas C.
Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New Haven: Yale University Press 1966); Robert O. Keohane
and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, (Boston: Little
Brown 1977); David A. Baldwin, Economic Statecraft, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press 1985); Evelyn Goh (ed.), Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia, (Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press 2016); Jonathan D. Moyer et al, “Power and Influence in a
Globalized World,” (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council 2018).
5. Goh, Rising China’s Influence, 14.
6. Lasswell and Kaplan, Power and Society, 76; Robert A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,”
Behavioral Science, 1957, vol. 2, no. 3, 201–215.
7. David A. Baldwin, “Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends Versus Old Tendencies,”
World Politics, 1979, vol. 31, no. 2, 164–166.
8. For analysis of whether and how economic power translates into influence in other domains,
see Scott Kastner, “Buying Influence? Assessing the Political Effects of China’s International
Trade,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 60, no. 6, 980–1007.
9. See esp. Scott Kastner and Margaret Pearson, “Exploring the Parameters of China’s Economic
Influence,” Studies in Comparative International Development, (March 2021), https://doi.
org/10.1007/s12116-021-09318-9; Goh, Rising China’s Influence.
10. For a summary of how Chinese analysts assess the strengths and weaknesses of PRC influence
abroad, see Michael A. Glosny, “Chinese Assessments of China’s Influence in Developing
Asia” in Evelyn Goh (ed.), Rising China’s Influence, 24–54. See Kastner, “Buying Influence?”
980–1007 for analysis of the specific influence effects from trade dependence. Baldwin,
“Power Analysis in World Politics,” 166–173, discusses the question of fungibility off
influence across different domains.
11. For example, many studies assess how China influences other states’ UN General Assembly
votes or solicits rhetorical or declaratory stances on issues like Tibet and Taiwan. See
Gustavo Flores-Macias, Sarah Kreps, “The Foreign Policy Consequences of Trade: China’s
Commercial Relations with Africa and Latin America, 1992–2006,” Journal of Politics,
vol 75, no. 2, 357–371; Georg Strüver, “What Friends Are Made of: Bilateral Linkages and
Domestic Drivers of Foreign Policy Alignment with China,” Foreign Policy Analysis, 2016,
vol. 12, no. 2, 170–191.
12. Goh, Rising China’s Influence.
13. Brian C.H. Fong, Jieh-min Wu, Andrew Nathan (eds), China’s Influence and the Center-
periphery Tug of War in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific, (London: Routledge 2016).
14. Dahl, Modern Political Analysis, 45.
15. John Gerring, Case Study Research: Principles and Practices, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), 120–121. This tests the sufficiency of the independent variables to
produce the theorized outcome on a dependent variable. If all of the independent variables

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

have values that we expect to produce the predicted effect, yet it fails, we have grounds to
consider whether there is an omitted variable relevant to this case that should occasion a
revision to our scope conditions. If that omitted variable is common, such cases should
occasion a more radical revision of the underlying theory. See Andrew Bennet and Jeffrey T,
Checkel, “Process Tracing: From Philosophical Roots to Best Practices,” in Process Tracing:
From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, (New York: Cambridge University Press 2014), 26.
16. Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, (London: Oxford University
Press 2015).
17. “Pak-China Friendship is Higher Than Mountains, Deeper Than Ocean and Sweeter Than
Honey: PM,” The Nation, 19 December 2010,
18. Pew Research, “Opinion of China,” Pew Global Indicators Database, https://www. (data from 2005–2015).
19. According to World Bank data, in 2018, Pakistan’s bilateral trade deficit with China and
Hong Kong was $12.8 billion ($1.93bn exported to China/HK and $14.72 bn imported from
China/HK). This overall $16.7bn trade volume is nearly twice that of Pakistan’s next-largest
trading partner, the United Arab Emirates ($9.6bn). China is the source of 24.5 percent
of Pakistan’s imports and the target for 8.2 percent of its exports. Source: “Pakistan Trade
Balance, Exports and Imports by Country,” 2018, World Integrated Trade Solution, https://
Partner/by-country, accessed 26 January 2021.
20. The influence acquired from trade derives from “that part of a country’s well-being which
it is in the power of its trading partners to take away” (Hirschman, National Power, 19).
Hirschman also argues that the greater the asymmetry, the greater the adjustment costs to
the smaller party: “The greater the percentage of exports and imports involved in a dominant
market, the more difficult it will be to provide substitute markets and sources of supply”
(Ibid., 30). While China and Pakistan have had a free trade agreement (since 2006), such
commitments should not be expected to diminish the threat of unilateral exit if conditions
were to demand it.
21. The United Kingdom is the next-largest foreign investor, accounting for 12 percent of the
total FDI flow in the period 2010–2020. Pakistan Board of Investment, “Foreign Investment
Statistics,”, accessed 27 Jan. 2021. According to the IMF,
25 percent of outstanding public debt and nearly 40 percent of the debt that will come
due during the period of the 2019 IMF “Extended Fund Facility” is owed to the PRC. See
International Monetary Fund, “First Review Under the Extended Arrangement Under
the Extended Fund Facility and Request for Modification of Performance Criteria,” IMF
Country Report, no. 19/380, December 2019,
Issues/2019/12/20/Pakistan-First-Review-Under-the-Extended- Arrangement-Under-the-
Extended-Fund-Facility-and-48899, 28–34.
22. The clearest articulation of this logic is Hirschman, National Power and the Structure of
Foreign Trade, 13–34. This “asymmetric interdependence” is often considered to be a source
of leverage. See Keohane and Nye, Power and Interdependence.
23. This is the most recent figure reported in Pakistani press. Shahbaz Rana, “Pick up the pace

Isaac B. Kardon

of work on CPEC projects, ministries told,” The Express Tribune, 27 January 2021, https://
24. For a recent and comprehensive analysis of this program, see: Andrew Small,
“Returning to the Shadows: China, Pakistan, and the Fate of CPEC,” German
Marshall Fund of the United States (2020),
25. There are opposition politicians, civil society organizations, and militant groups who
rhetorically and practically oppose CPEC. Hussain Haqqani, “Pakistan Discovers the
High Cost of Chinese Investment,” The Diplomat, 18 May, 2020, https://thediplomat.
26. Andrew Small, “Returning to the Shadows: China, Pakistan, and the Fate of CPEC,”
German Marshall Fund, September 2020,
27. This “Hirschmanesque effect” of creating a constituency in the host country is one of the
most potent but underappreciated ways of generating influence through commerce. See
Hirschman, National Power, 28–29 and Rawi Abdelal and Jonathan Kirshner, “Strategy,
Economic Relations, and the Definition of National Interest.” Security Studies, 1999, vol. 9,
no. 1–2, 119–156.
28. The latest bailout from China came in the form of a $1.5 billion financing line to service debt
to Saudi Arabia, Shahbaz Rana, “China Again Bails Out Pakistan to Pay Saudi Debt,” The
Express Tribune, 13 December 2020,
bails-out-pakistan-to-pay-saudi-debt. See also IMF, “First Review”; Sophia Saifi and James
Griffiths, “Pakistan Agrees to 13th Bailout in 30 Years from the IMF,” CNN International,
May 13, 2019,
29. John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of
China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016): 663–664; Daniel Byman and Roger
Cliff, China’s Arms Sales: Motivations and Implications, RAND Corporation monograph
MR119-AF, 1999, 14–16.
30. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “TIV of arms exports to Pakistan,
2014–2019,” SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, generated 27 January 2021. While Pakistan
has episodically received significant arms transfers from the United States, these have been
intermittent and cumulatively smaller than China’s regular, large arms packages.
31. Ambuj Sahu, “Analysing the trends in China-Pakistan arms transfer,” Observer
Research Foundation, 14 June 2019,
32. Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs (CSCMA), “Chinese Military Diplomacy
Database” version 3.0 (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2020). Note that
Russia’s armed forces are in some ways superior to China’s (especially in the nuclear weapons
domain), whereas Pakistan’s military is qualitatively and quantitatively inferior on all
dimensions. The engagements are thus a potential conduit of influence on Pakistan in a way
that we should not expect with Russia. NB—the United States had 48 such engagements in
the period 2014–2019,
33. Wang Shibin [王士彬], Ouyang Hao [欧阳浩], “Xi Meets Pakistani Army Chief Bajwa [习

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

近平会见巴基斯坦陆军参谋长巴杰瓦]” People’s Liberation Army WeChat Public Channel

[解放军记者微信公众号], 20 September 2018,
34. “Pakistan’s President, Prime-Minister Meet Wei Fenghe [巴基斯坦总统、总理会见魏
凤和],” Xinhua [新华], 1 December 2020,
35. E.g., Chen Runchu [陈润楚], et al., “Sea Guardians 2020: China-Pakistan Joint Exercise to
Carry Out Port-Shore Exchange Activities [“海洋卫士-2020”中巴联合演习开展港岸交流
活动”], PRC Ministry of Defense Online [国防部网], 8 January 2020,
36. A typical readout from mil-to-mil meetings emphasizes CT: “China is willing to work
with the Pakistani military to continuously strengthen pragmatic cooperation in high-level
exchanges of visits, joint exercises and training, equipment and technology, and combating
terrorism, and actively contribute to the development of relations between the two countries
and the two militaries, especially the two navies. Abasi said that Pakistan cherishes Pakistan-
China traditional friendship and appreciates China’s support and assistance. It is willing to
further intensify high-level exchanges and strategic communication with China, continue
to strengthen cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism and the construction of the
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and actively promote bilateral cooperation. Military
relations are moving forward.” Ouyang Hao [欧阳浩], “魏凤和会见巴基斯坦海军参
谋长[Wei Fenghe Meets with Pakistan Navy Chief of Staff ],”PRC Ministry of National
Defense online [国防部网], 21 April 2019,
37. CSCMA, “Chinese Military Diplomacy Database.” 9 of 24 military exercises focused on
CT in the period 2014–2019, while 8 focused generically on “combat”. Pakistan is also a
participant in several recurring multilateral exercises on CT with China, including those
through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-
Tajikistan “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism,” and the Pakistan-
China-Afghanistan “trilateral” CT mechanism. For a review of these exercises, see PRC
State Council Information Office, “Chinas National Defense in the New Era,” 24 July 2019,
38. Use of this term does not imply endorsement or validation of PRC claims about what
constitutes “terrorism,” which is defined in the 2015 PRC Anti-Terrorism Law in a way that
encompasses many actions that most governments exclude. See Murray Scot Tanner and James
Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” Center for Naval Analyses, 2016, https://www.uscc.
gov/sites/default/files/Research/Chinas Response to Terrorism_CNA061616.pdf, 1–3.
39. The changes to the Chinese CT apparatus and strategy are numerous, and many are codified
in law and regulation: Li Xiaobo [李小波], Practical Compendium of Laws and Regulations
on Emergency Response and Counterterrorism [应急反恐法规实用全书], (Beijing: Law Press
of China 2014). See also Tanner and Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” 11–32;
Clarke (ed.), Terrorism and Counterterrorism in China.
40. On Xi’s “holistic” or “overall” national security concept and its various ideological,
organizational, and legal components, see Sheena Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under

Isaac B. Kardon

Xi Jinping,” China Leadership Monitor, 1 March 2019,

41. Xi Jinping, “Safeguard National Security and Social Stability (25 April 2014),” in The
Governance of China, ed. Xi Jinping (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press 2014). Tanner and
Bellacqua observe that “of the eight paragraphs in this speech, three are devoted to terrorism,
separatism, and religious extremism—more than any other topic” (Tanner and Bellacqua,
“China’s Response to Terrorism,” 570).
42. Tanner and Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” 30–32; Clarke, Terrorism and
Counterterrorism in China.
43. “Xi Jinping: Open Up Opportunities and Meet Challenges—Speech at the Informal Meeting
of the Leaders of the BRICS [习近平:开拓机遇应对挑战-在金砖国家领导人非正式
会晤上的发言],” People’s Daily [人民日报], November 16, 2015,
cn/n/2015/1116/c64094-27817853.html; “Xi Jinping Rectifies the Name of Economic
Globalization,” 学习中国 [Learn China], 20 January 2017,
44. “Anti-Terrorism Law of the PRC [中华人民共和国反恐怖主义法],” Adopted at the 18th
Meeting of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress, December 27,
2015, Article 71 sates
that “the PLA and PAP forces may assign people to leave the country on counterterrorism
missions as approved by the Central Military Commission.” For interpretation of this
article and other elements of the statute, see Zunyou Zhou, “China’s Comprehensive
Counter-Terrorism Law: A Closer Look at the Contents of China’s First Comprehensive
Anti-Terrorism Law,” The Diplomat, January 23, 2016,
45. Liu Peng [刘鹏], “Expert [Li Wei]: The Anti-Terrorism Law guarantees the Chinese military’s
fight against terrorism abroad [专家:《反恐法》保障中国军队境外打击恐怖主义],”
Yangguang Military [央广军事], December 28, 2015,
46. Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, “Xi Jinping, Chairman of
the Central Military Commission, signed an order to issue the “Regulations on International
Military Cooperation Work [中央军委主席习近平签署命令发布《国际军事合作
工作条例》],” PLA Daily [解放军日报], February 20, 2021,
47. Sheena Greitens, “Internal Security & Grand Strategy: China’s Approach to National
Security under Xi Jinping,” Statement before the U.S. China Economic & Security Review
Commission, Hearing on “U.S.-China Relations at the Chinese Communist Party’s
Centennial,” January 28, 2021,
48. Sun Jianguo [孙建国], “Steadfastly Walking the Road of National Security with Chinese
Characteristics—Learning from the Major Strategic Ideas of President Xi Jinping’s Overall
National Security Concept [坚定不移走中国特色国家安全道路———学习习近平主席
总体国家安全观重大战略思想], Seeking Truth [求是], 2015, no. 5.
49. Qin Tian [秦天], “The Anti-Terrorism Situation in the Early 21st Century and the Building
of China’s Anti-Terrorist Military Power [21 世纪前期反恐形势 与中国反恐军事力量建

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

设)],” China Military Science [中国军事科学], 2017, no. 1, 56.

50. PRC State Council Information Office, “China’s Military Strategy,” May 2015, http://
51. For a fuller discussion of the military implications, see Mathieu Duchâtel, “Terror
Overseas: Understanding China’s Evolving Counter-Terror Strategy,” European Council on
Foreign Relations, 2016,
52. Sheena Greitens, Myunghee Lee, and Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and Domestic Repression:
China’s Changing Strategy in Xinjiang,” International Security, 2019, vol. 44, no. 3, 9–47.
53. For a summary of the scope and extent of the actual terror threat in China, see Michael
Clarke, “China’s “War on Terrorism”: Confronting the Dilemmas of the ‘Internal-External’
Security Nexus,” in M. Clarke (ed.), Terrorism and Counterterroism in China: Domestic and
Foreign Policy Dimensions, (London: Oxford University Press 2018), 17–38.
54. Wang Xi [王茜], “Evolution of the ‘East Turkestan’ Issue and the Relevance of Terrorism
in the Middle East [‘东突’问题发展演变与中东恐怖主义 相关性透视],” Arab World
Studies [阿拉伯世界研究], 2008, no. 6, 31–36. One scholar argues that the transnational
dimension has an even wider geographic footprint, claiming that purported terrorist cells in
China “use West Asia as a base camp, Central Asia as a bridgehead, South Asia as a training
base, Europe and the United States as their coordination and command center, and China as
the main battlefield.” Wang Hongwei [王宏伟], “国家安全治理的内外整合: 以打击‘东
突’恐怖主义位列 [Integration of Domestic and International Factors in National Security
Governance: A Case Study of China’s Combat Against East Turkistan Terrorist Forces],” 国
际安全研究 [International Security Research], 2019, no. 3, 88.
55. Zhang Xingyi [张兴毅], “China-Pakistan Counterterrorism Cooperation from a Political
Geography Perspective [政治地理学视角下的中巴反恐合作],” China Today Forum [今日
中国论坛], 2013, no. 11, 364.
56. Qin Tian, “The Anti-Terrorism Situation,” 52.
57. Li Guangyu [李光钰], “A Study on the Cross-Border Terrorism of the ETIM and Police
Cooperation and Control Mechanisms [“东突”跨境恐怖主义犯罪及其警务合作防控 机
制研究],” Journal of Shandong Police College [山东警察学院学报], 2017, no. 1, 84–91. For
a comprehensive assessment of all of the PRC bureaucratic and legal CT mechanisms, see
Tanner and Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” 37–47, 55–80.
58. Zhao Zhiwen [赵志文], 基于 SWOT 分析南疆四地州参与中巴经济走廊建设 赵志
文 [“SWOT Analysis of the Participation of Four Prefectures in Southern Xinjiang in the
Construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”], 新 疆职业大学学报 [Journal of
Xinjiang Vocational College], 2015, vol. 3, no. 3, 20.
59. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, (Washington DC: Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, 2005).
60. See U.S. Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Pakistan,” Country Reports on
Terrorism, 2019,
61. Andrew Small, “China and Counter-Terrorism: Beyond Pakistan” in Clarke (ed.), Terrorism
and Counterterrorism, 186–203.

Isaac B. Kardon

62. E.g., in a report typical of the work of state security analysts, two authors from the PRC
People’s Public Security University’s School of Anti-Terrorism prescribe a variety of new
intelligence and tactical measures for Pakistani police and military CT, supported by PRC
resources: “In order to provide a more stable environment for cooperation between the two
sides, the establishment of a counterterrorism cooperation mechanism between China and
Pakistan should be expedited. First, a counter-terrorism cooperation department should be
established and given legal and organizational recognition and support; second, China and
Pakistan should set common goals for counter-terrorism cooperation and work together with
Pakistan to sanction and combat terrorists and maintain national security and social stability
in both countries; and third, a counter-terrorism intelligence sharing mechanism should be
established to raise the level of cooperation between the two countries in fighting terrorism
and broaden the areas of cooperation between the two countries. China should strengthen its
financial assistance to Pakistan for counter-terrorism.” See: Liu Shuangyu and Wu Shaozhong
[刘双瑜, 吴绍忠], 浅析中国与巴基斯坦开展反恐合作的缘由及实现路径 [“Analysis
of the Reasons and Realization Path of Counterterrorism Cooperation between China
and Pakistan”], 贵州警官职业学院学报 [Journal of Guizhou Police Officer Vocational
College], 2016, no. 6, 106.
63. NB—The question of Chinese influence on Pakistan should not be confused with the
question of Pakistan’s effectiveness or success in CT endeavors. The question hinges on
whether Pakistani leaders changed their actions as a result of Chinese pressure.
64. Naveed Siddiqui, “‘Iron Brothers’: China, Pakistan Agree to Safeguard Common Interests,
Strengthen Cooperation in All Areas,” Dawn, August 21 2020,
65. Small, The China Pakistan Axis, 80.
66. John Garver, China’s Quest, 420. Some 300 PRC military trainers were operating in Pakistan,
and eventually two camps for training mujahideen were established inside. See also Yitzhak
Shichor, “The Great Wall of Steel: Militancy and Strategy in Xinjiang,” in Xinjiang: China’s
Muslim Borderlands, ed. by S. Frederick Starr, Armonk, (NY: M.E. Sharpe 2004): 120–160,
148–149. It also bears noting that the United States was actively involved in this initiative.
67. Small, The China-Pakistan Axis, 123–126.
68. Sadia Fayaz, “China’s Xinjiang Problem and Pakistan,” Dialogue, 2012, 7:3, 235–254; Small,
“China and Counterterrorism,” 195.
69. Small, The China-Pakistan Axis, 128–129.
70. Brian Fishman, “Al-Qaeda and the Rise of China: Jihadi Geopolitics in a Post-Hegemonic
World,” Washington Quarterly, 34:3, 49–50.
71. See Clarke, “China’s “War on Terrorism” for a detailed history of these events.
72. Small, The China-Pakistan Axis, 81.
73. Ibid, 73–77.
74. Sadia Fayaz, “China’s Xinjiang Problem and Pakistan,” 36–38
75. Jin Yan (金焱), Wu, Qi (吴琪), “East Turkestan Hasan [Mahsum] Dead [‘东突’艾山
之死],” East West South North [东西南北], 2014, no. 3, 18–20. There is some question
about whether this was a joint U.S.-Pakistan operation in South Waziristan or a unilateral
raid by the Pakistan army. Another purported ETIM leader, Ismail Kadir, was captured in

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

2002 along with 400 other suspected fighters and returned to China. (“Separatist Leader
Handed Over to China,” Dawn, 28 May 2002,
76. Small, The China-Pakistan Axis, 85.
77. Fishman, “Al-Qaeda and the Rise of China”; Fayaz, “China’s Xinjiang Problem”; Small,
“China and Counter-Terrorism.”
78. Saud Mehsud and Maria Golovnina, “From His Pakistan Hideout, Uyghur Leader
Vows Revenge on China,” Reuters, March 14, 2014,
79. Ibid.
80. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Leader of Group Tied to Al Qaida,” U.S.
Department of the Treasury Press Center, April 20, 2009,
81. Dawn, “Pakistan Says Will Help China Fight Xinjiang Militants,” Dawn, 8 November 2014,
82. Gan Lu [甘露] and Han Jun [韩隽], “IS in Central and South Asia: Differences and
Prospects [‘IS 国’在中, 南亚: 差异与前景],” Northwestern Journal of Ethnology [西北民族
研究], no. 3, 214–23; International Crisis Group, “Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in
83. Song Minxuan [宋明轩], Research on Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Mechanism (巴基斯坦反恐
机制研究). M.A. thesis, PLA Strategic Support Force Informational Engineering University
[战略支援部队信息工程大学], 2019.
84. “Pakistan Bans Three Extremist Outfits, on Orders from China,”
Tribune, 23 October 2013,
85. Howard W. French, “Letter from China: Mosque Siege Reveals the Chinese
Connection,” New York Times, July 12, 2007,
world/asia/12iht-letter.1.6629789.html; “Zarb-e-Azb: Strengthening Pak-China
Relations,” Isamabad Policy Research Institute, November 3, 2015,
86. International Crisis Group, “Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities
and Pitfalls,” ICG Report, no. 271, July 22, 2015,
87. Chinese experts affiliated with its main foreign intelligence agency, the Ministry of State
Security (MSS), make this claim as well as allege that the attack on the Karachi airport was
linked to ETIM. See Li Wei [李伟], “Realignment of Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Strategy
[巴基斯坦反恐战略的调整],” Contemporary International Relations [现代国际关系],
2015, no. 7, 18–24.
88. Hao Zhou [郝洲], 周戎 [Zhou Rong], 刘英 [Liu Ying], “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
Field Research Report [中巴经济走廊实地调研报告],” Renmin University Chongyang
Institute and Caijing Magazine Report [人民大学重阳金融研究院与财经杂志报告],
2016, no. 19, 24.

Isaac B. Kardon

89. Dawn, “All Uyghur Militants Eliminated from Pakistani Territory: Jhawaja Asif,” Dawn, 18
October 2015,
90. Dawn, “Raheel Meets Chinese Military Leaders,” Dawn, January 26, 2015, https://www.
91. Sachchal Ahmad, “After Zarb-e-Azb: Now What,” Stimson Center, 18 August 2015, https://; Dawn, “Taliban Cut Hair and Beards to
Flee Army Assault,” Dawn, 6 July 2014,
hair-and-beards-to-flee-army-assault; “Taliban ‘Fled’ Pakistani Offensive ‘Before It Began,”
BBC, 10 July 2014,
92. Achmad, “After Zarb-e-Azb”; Li Wei, “Realignment of Pakistan’s CT Strategy,” 24; Thomas
Koscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda Operates in Southern Helmand Province,” Long War
Journal, 24 October 2015,
93. Small, “China and Counterterrorism”; Duchâtel, “China’s Foreign Fighters
Problem,” War on the Rocks, 25 January 2019,
94. Zhang Xingyi, “China-Pakistan CT Cooperation,” 364.
95. Embassy of the PRC in the Islamic Republic of Pakjistan, “Press Release,” September 21,
2018,; Dawn, “Religious Affairs
Minister Discusses Treatment of Xinjiang Muslims with Chinese Envoy,” Dawn, September
19, 2018,
96. “Pakistani PM Imran Khan Calls for UN Action on India Dispute,” Al Jazeera, 23 January
action-on-india-dispute; Alice Su, Shashank Bengali, and Shah Meer Baloch, “A Pakistani
Father’s Ordeal: China Seized His Uyghur Son and Sent His Daughters to an Orphanage,”
Los Angeles Times, 25 September 2020,
97. Karan Thapar, “Full Text: Interview with Imran Khan’s NSA on Kashmir, Uyghurs,
Jadhav, Terror, and Talks,” The Wire, October 15, 2020,
98. UN Human Rights Council, “Letter Dated July 12, 2019,” UN Human Rights Council, 41st
session, 9 August 2019, A/HRC/41/G/17
99. Khan’s consistent advocacy for Muslims in Kashmir is one of his principal political positions.
He has also inveighed critically against French Prime Minister Macron in relation to
cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (“Pakistan PM Accuses Macron of Attacking Islam by
‘Encouraging’ Blasphemous Cartoons,” Reuters, 25 October 2020,
blasphemous-cartoons-idUSKBN27A0PT) and against Facebook for alleged Islamophobia
(Imran Khan Twitter, 25 October 2020,
100. Lu Peng [芦鹏] and Wang Mingcheng [王明程], “Terrorist Threats and Countermeasures in
Cities Along the CPEC in Pakistan [中巴经济走廊巴基斯坦沿线城市恐怖威胁与对],”
Journal of the Chinese Police Academy [中国刑警学院学报], 2020, no. 5, 39. The authors use

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.

101. Ibid, 39–40. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan accounts for some 40 percent of these attacks.
102. Ibid, 40.
103. Reliance on security contractors is proving necessary for Chinese projects across its sprawling
Belt and Road Initiative. See: Meia Nouwens and Helena Legarda, “Guardians of the Belt
and Road,” IISS-MERICs Research Paper, 17 August 2018,
104. Meher Ahmad and Salman Masood, “Chinese Presence in Pakistan is Targeted in Strike
on Consulate in Karachi,” New York Times, 23 November 2018, https://www.nytimes.
com/2018/11/23/world/asia/pakistan-karachi-attack-chinese-consulate.html; “Pakistan
Attack: Gunmen Storm Five-Star Hotel in Balochistan,” BBC, 12 May 2019, https://www.
105. PRC Foreign Ministry, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press
Conference,” 21 August 2019,
106. The SSD is headquartered in Karachi and Rawalpindi, but between 3,000 and 5,000 of these
have been detailed to the Chinese port project at Gwadar. Another special unit is detailed
to the Chinese power project and coal berth at Port Qasim. See Maham Hameed, “The
Politics of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” Palgrave Communications, 2018, vol. 4,
64,, 7; Peng Guangqiao [彭光桥]
and Zhang Wenbin [张文斌], “New Security Chief of CPEC Special Security Detachment
Inspects Qasim Project [中巴经济走廊特别安保部队新长官到卡西姆项目视察],”
Qasim Port Power Generation Co. (Subsidiary of Power China Corp) [卡西姆港发电有限
公司], 22 October 2018, [; Hao Zhou et al.,
“China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Field Research Report,” 22.
107. Jin Hua [金华], “Pakistan Terrorist Attack Threat Analysis and Discussion of Prevention
Strategy [巴基斯坦恐怖袭击威胁分析与防范策略探讨],” China Security and Defense [中
国安防], 2018, no. 12, 35–40.
108. A leading Chinese CT analyst with intelligence connections captures this conventional
wisdom in observing that “[t]he causes of terrorism in Pakistan are diverse, and it is clear that
a purely military response cannot address both the symptoms and the root causes.” See Li
Wei, “Realignment of Pakistan’s CT Strategy,” 20.
109. Liao Qin [廖勤], “Why Pakistan’s terrorist attacks and counter-terrorism are always in an
endless loop,” People’s Liberation Daily [解放日报], 29 March 2016, http://www.xinhuanet.
110. E.g., Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference, 17 June
111. Lu Shulin[陆树林], 中巴经济走廊:“一带一路” 的 旗舰项目和示范项目 [“China
Pakistan Economic Corridor: A Flagship and Exemplary Project of the Belt and Road”], 印
度洋经集体研究 [Indian Ocean Economic and Political Review], 2015, no. 4, 104. Analysts
from China’s police academy similarly observe that “the intricacies of poverty, political
corruption, weak state governance, and the deep-rooted contradictions between civilian and
military politics have shaped the deep breeding ground and ‘hotbed’ of terrorism in Pakistan”

Isaac B. Kardon

(Lu Peng et al., “Terrorist Threats and Countermeasures,” 33). There are also scattered
dissenting views in China on whether or not military means are sufficient for effective CT.
Two analysts argue that “because of the narrow-mindedness, vindictiveness, fanaticism,
cruelty, and aggressiveness of the ‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces, military means are the most
effective measures to combat them” (Tu Huazhong [涂华忠] & He Hongmei [和红梅], “A
Study on the Construction of Counter-Terrorism Cooperation Mechanism between China
and Southeast and South Asian Countries [构建中国与东南亚、南亚国家反恐合作机制
研究],” Southeast Asia and South Asia Studies [东南亚南亚研究], 2014, no. 2, 11).
112. Gan Lu et al, “IS in Central and South Asia,” 218.
113. Li Wei, “Realignment of Pakistan’s CT Strategy,” 20.
114. Niu Song [钮松], “A Study of Current Deradicalization Practices in Pakistan [当前巴基斯
坦的去极端化实践研究],” South Asian Studies Quarterly [南亚研究季刊], 2020, no. 1,
115. “From September 25 to 26, the Third Central Xinjiang Work Forum was held in Beijing. Xi
Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, State President, and Chairman of
the Central Military Commission attended the meeting and delivered an important speech [9
月25日至26日第三次中央新疆工作座谈会在北京召开],” Xinjiang Uyhgur Autonomous
Zone Water resources Department [新疆维吾尔自治区水利厅], 26 October 2020, http://slt.
116. For example, China has hosted tribal elders at its CCP religious affairs organization, the
China Islamic Association, to discuss “the situation of religious education and religious
development of Muslims in China.” See Ma Jie, 巴基斯坦部落长老代表团拜访中国伊协
(Pakistani Tribal Elders Delegation Visits China Islamic Association), China-Islam Network,
2016, no. 5,
117. See, Financial Action Task Force, “Jurisdictions Under Increased Monitoring,” February
february-2021.html#pakistan. China is likely to have ceased protecting Pakistan in this
forum in order secure its presidency of the FATF for a PRC official (see Small, “Returning to
the Shadows,” 39).
118. Murali Krishnan, “Masood Azhar—a Global Terrorist—and the Implications for
Pakistan,” Lowy Interpreter, May 31, 2019,
119. Guiding Opinion of the CCP Central Committee and PRC State Council on
Promoting Development of the Western Regions in the New Era [中共中央 国务
院关于新时代推进西部大开发形成新格局的指导意见], Xinhua News Agency [
新华社], 17 May 2020,
120. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, often called the bingtuan (兵团) was
called on to become the “top militia force in defense of the China-Pakistan border.” See Yi
Shuran [易舒冉], “Long-term Adherence to the Party’s Strategy for Governing Xinjiang
in the New Era—General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Speech at the Third Central
Symposium on Xinjiang Work Triggered Enthusiastic Reactions [长期坚持新时代党的治

China’s “New Era” of Influence in Pakistan

People’s Daily [人民日报], 28 September 2020,

121. Bill Roggio, “U.S. Launches Airstrikes on Taliban Training Camps,” Long War Journal, 6
February 2018,
122. The White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States,” December 2017, 28,
123. Analysts from the People’s Armed Police concluded in 2019 that “at present, international
counter-terrorism assistance to Pakistan is not effective.” See Zhang Mengzhao [张梦昊]
and Jia Ren [任佳], “Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Capacity Enhancement in the Context of
International Assistance [国际援助视域下巴基斯坦 反恐能力提升研究],” Journal of the
People’s Armed Police Academy [武警学院学报], 2019, vol. 35, no. 12, 52.
124. Ibid, 55.
125. Small, The China-Pakistan Axis, 28–129.
126. For a discussion of China’s maritime power projection interests in Pakistan, see Isaac Kardon,
Conor Kennedy, and Peter Dutton, “Gwadar: China’s Potential Strategic Strongpoint in
Pakistan,” CMSI China Maritime Report, 2020, no. 7,
cmsi-maritime-reports/7/, 48–57.
127. Baldwin, “Power analysis and world politics”; Kastner and Pearson, “Exploring the
128. See Goh, Rising China’s Influence, 10–14 on “preference alignment” as the most common but
least easily observed form of influence in her typology.
129. This is sometimes the only thing analysts mean when they refer to influence, e.g., Lasswell
and Kaplan, Power and Society. Others intend a much stricter definition of coercion: “To
be coercive, violence has to be anticipated. And it has to be avoidable by accommodation,”
Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, 2.
130. For an analysis of these various ways of conceptualizing influence specified to the Chinese
case, see Goh, Rising China’s Influence, 5–16.
131. Daniel Markey, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2020). The author is grateful to Dan Markey for his insight
about coercive influence as the priority category.


Nuclear Belt and Road:

China’s Ambition for
Nuclear Exports and Its
Global Implications

Lami Kim is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and an

Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army War College.
Lami Kim

Nuclear exports are an important and understudied part of the Belt and Road
Initiative (BRI). Beijing plans to build and finance approximately 30 nuclear
reactors in BRI countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa over the next de-
cade. This strategy has significant implications for international politics. First,
the bigger China’s share of the nuclear market, the more say it will have in
shaping rules and norms in global nuclear governance, sparking concern that
it will challenge existing nonproliferation and nuclear export norms. Second,
China’s nuclear exports will increase recipient countries’ reliance on China
for decades at the expense of the United States, thereby threatening a shift in
the balance of power in the international system. Third, although nuclear en-
ergy is a clean alternative to carbon-emitting resources, the Nuclear Belt and
Road poses environmental concerns because many recipient countries lack
rigorous regulations and necessary technologies, know-how and personnel to
handle the atom safely. China’s Nuclear Belt and Road constitutes a threat to
U.S. interests and the international community’s efforts to promote nuclear
nonproliferation and nuclear safety. As the issue will remain prominent going
forward, the United States should act to thwart China’s nuclear exports.

Policy Recommendations:
● Enhance U.S. capacity to compete with China in the global nuclear

» Collaborate with nuclear firms from allied countries to combine U.S.

strengths in safe operation and management of nuclear facilities with
other nuclear countries that have experience in constructing nuclear
power plants.
» Promote international co-financing with likeminded countries to
offer attractive financing for U.S. nuclear exports.
» Promote the development of next generation nuclear technology,
such as small modular reactors, that would give the United States a
competitive edge over China.

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

● Raise awareness about the danger of cooperating with China through

diplomatic channels and public outreach.

» Shed light on China’s chronic corruption problem, lack of

transparency and shady business practices, such as theft of intellectual
property, and poor safety standards.

Lami Kim

In October 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative
(BRI), China’s ambitious infrastructure development and investment initia-
tives that stretch from Asia to Europe. The BRI is two-pronged: a land cor-
ridor (Silk Road Economic Belt) and a sea corridor (the Maritime Silk Road).
It is a decades-long, umbrella project that encompasses various infrastructure
projects that would enhance China’s connectivity to other regions by both
land and sea, including high speed rails, highways, ports, and energy pipelines.
In addition to physical infrastructure, the BRI includes “soft” infrastructure,
such as free trade agreements, harmonization of regulatory standards, and
financial integration. So far, 143 countries have agreed to participate in the
BRI,1 with about $8 trillion of announced investments.2
Nuclear exports are an important component of the BRI. Along with its 5G
technology and its high-speed railway technology, China has promoted its nu-
clear technology as the basis of its technological prowess. China’s 10-year indus-
trial policy, “Made in China 2025,” was released in 2015 and aimed at achieving
China’s global dominance in high-tech industries, including the nuclear indus-
try, by mobilizing and funding state-owned enterprises.3 In 2019, the Chinese
National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), China’s state-owned nuclear firm,
expressed an ambitious goal to build as many as 30 nuclear reactors abroad by
2030.4 China has already built four nuclear reactors and is currently building
two more in Pakistan. China has also entered the United Kingdom’s nuclear
market by financing a third of the construction of nuclear reactors at Hinkley
Point C in Somerset.5 It has signed contracts to sell its nuclear reactors to Iran,
Argentina, and Brazil, and is negotiating nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia,
the Philippines, and Kazakhstan, among many others.6 The CNNC claims to
have “already sold seven power units and eight reactors to seven countries and is
in talks with more than 40,” according to its website.7
China is increasingly competitive in the nuclear market. The economies of
scale that result from its large domestic nuclear market, as well as its home-
grown nuclear technology, allow China to make attractive offers abroad. In
addition, Chinese nuclear firms promise generous loans and aid backed by
China’s state-owned banks. This is a huge advantage for China’s nuclear ex-
ports, as building nuclear power plants is an expensive endeavor. Financing is
often a determining factor when states choose a foreign nuclear vendor.

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

China’s dominance in the nuclear market has significant implications for

the United States and the world. First, the bigger China’s share of the nuclear
market, the more say it will have in shaping rules and norms in global nuclear
governance, sparking concern that it will challenge existing nonproliferation
and nuclear export norms. Second, China’s nuclear exports will increase re-
cipient countries’ reliance on China for decades at the expense of the United
States, shifting the balance of power in the international system. Third, al-
though nuclear energy is a clean alternative to carbon-emitting resources,
China’s nuclear exports raise concerns for nuclear safety in light of China’s
poor track record in industrial safety in general and its lack of transparency
about their safety records. The fact that potential recipient countries often
lack rigorous regulations, know-how, and personnel to handle the nuclear fa-
cilities safely and securely adds to the concern. As such, China’s Nuclear Belt
and Road constitutes a threat to U.S. interests and the international commu-
nity’s efforts to promote nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear safety. As the
issue will remain prominent going forward, the United States should act to
thwart China’s nuclear exports.
This paper will first illustrate China’s pursuit of the Nuclear Belt and Road
and introduce its progress and future prospects. Then it will analyze the im-
pact of China’s nuclear exports on global nuclear governance, the balance of
power, and environment/nuclear safety. Finally, it will conclude with policy
recommendations for Washington.

China’s Ambition for the Nuclear Belt and Road

Development of China’s Nuclear Energy Program

China is a relative latecomer to the global nuclear market. Until the 1970s,
the United States enjoyed a virtual monopoly. From then until recently, three
major nuclear vendors, the United States, France and Japan, have supplied
three-fourths of the world’s nuclear reactors. With the decline of the tradi-
tional vendors’ market participation, Russia is the dominant nuclear vendor
today, making up about 60 percent of global reactor sales and technical as-
sistance in 2017.8 However, China is challenging Russia’s dominance in the
global nuclear market. China is the third largest producer of nuclear power

Lami Kim

only after the United States and France. Domestically, China operates 50 out
of the world’s 443 nuclear reactors.9 In addition, 11 out of the world’s 52 new
reactors are under construction in Chinese territory.10 China’s reliance on nu-
clear energy will further increase to meet its 2030 CO2 emission targets, and
to fulfill Xi Jinping’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.11 According
to some estimates, China is expected to become the largest nuclear energy
generator, surpassing the United States sometime before 2030.12
In addition, thanks to Beijing’s heavy investment in a new generation of
homegrown nuclear reactor technologies, China has developed nuclear reac-
tor models with intellectual property rights, most notably Hualong One, a
rival to the Westinghouse-developed AP1000 and Europe’s Evolutionary
Pressurized Reactor.13 China’s first nuclear reactor based on Hualong One
technology, the No. 5 unit of the Fuqing Nuclear Power Plant in Fujian
Province, went online in November 2020.14 Pilot projects for newer genera-
tions of pressurized water reactors, such as CAP1400, and high-temperature
gas cooled reactors (HTR-PM), are now underway.

China’s Nuclear Exports

With the government’s strong backing and its indigenous nuclear technology,
China is expanding its share in the global nuclear market. Pakistan is the first
recipient country of China’s nuclear exports. CNNC has built four nuclear
reactors (300 MWe CNP-300) for the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant. Also,
CNNC is currently building two Hualong One reactors for the Karachi
Coastal Power Station, the first export projects of the homegrown reactor
model, with partial financing from China ($6.5 billion out of the estimated
total cost of $9.6 billion).15 CNNC is also in line to build another Hualong
One reactor in Chashma.16 In total, China will have built six out of Pakistan’s
seven nuclear power plants.
China has made forays into the United Kingdom’s nuclear market, as
well. In 2015, Xi Jinping signed an agreement to take a 33.5 percent stake in
Électricité de France (EDF)’s construction of the Hinkley Point C Nuclear
Power Station in Somerset County, and jointly develop new power plants at
Sizewell C Power Plant in Suffolk. In 2016, China signed another agreement
to build the Bradwell B Nuclear Power Plant in Essex based on the Hualong
One design.17 The Bradwell project seems to be going smoothly. In November

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

2020, Hualong One was certified as compliant with the latest European re-
quirements by the European Utility Requirements, a technical advisory group
that evaluates new nuclear power plants proposed for construction in Europe.18
If completed, Bradwell will become the first export project of China’s home-
grown technology to a developed country, which would demonstrate China’s
ability to meet stringent regulatory standards and serve as a valuable foothold
for China’s future nuclear exports.
In addition, China plans to build nuclear power plants in Argentina, Iran
and Turkey. In 2015, CNNC signed a nearly $15 billion deal to construct
Argentina’s fourth and fifth nuclear reactors, with 85 percent Chinese financ-
ing. One of the reactors will be based on the Hualong One technology.19 In
the same year, CNNC signed an agreement to build and finance two nuclear
reactors using China’s homegrown small modular reactor design (ACP100)
on the Makran coast in Iran. In 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan announced that China would build Turkey’s third nuclear power
plant in Igneada.20 In the following year, China’s State Power Investment
Corporation declared that the company would participate in the construction
of four nuclear power plants in Turkey based on CAP1400 technology, an-
other of China’s homegrown technologies.21

Beyond the existing projects, China is actively pursuing nuclear exports

to other countries. Saudi Arabia is an important target for China’s nuclear
exports. The oil-rich country is planning to build 16 nuclear reactors in its
territory by 2040 so that it can reduce its domestic consumption of oil, as
well as increase its oil exports abroad and desalinate water. In 2012, China
signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia laying a legal
framework for China’s nuclear exports to the country. Since Xi Jinping signed
a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) during his 2016 visit to Riyadh
to develop a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor in Saudi Arabia, the two
countries have been in negotiation for nuclear cooperation.23 It is possible
that the two sides have already begun nuclear cooperation unofficially. U.S.
intelligence sources suggest that China is assisting Saudi Arabia to extract
uranium yellowcake, which can be used for producing weapon-grade ura-
nium, from uranium ore in a remote desert area in the northwestern part of
Saudi Arabia.24 China has assisted the Kingdom with missile development, as

Lami Kim

FIGURE 1. China’s Existing or Potential Nuclear Exports22

Country Plant Type Status

Pakistan Chashma 1, 2, 3, & 4 CNP-300 Currently in
Karachi Coastal 2 Hualong One Under construction
&3 with over 80%
Chinese financing
($6.5 billion).
Chashma 5 Hualong One Agreement in 2017
United Hinkley Point C N/A Under construction
Kingdom by EDF with 33.5%
Chinese financing.
Bradwell Hualong One Promised future
Argentina Atucha 3 Candu 6 Planned with 85%
Chinese financing.
5th Argentine Hualong One Planned with 85%
reactor Chinese financing.
Iran Makran coast 2 * 100 MWe Planned (agreed in
Turkey Igneada AP1000 & Planned (agreed in
CAP1400 2014).
Brazil Angra 3 Agreement in 2017.
Saudi Arabia HTR-PM MoU in 2016.

Algeria Hualong One In negotiation.

& APC100
Kenya Hualong One MOU in 2015.
Kazakhstan Hualong One Nuclear
agreement in 2014.
in uranium
mining and fuel

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

Country Plant Type Status

Jordan HTR-PM MOU in 2008.
Negotiation held in
Egypt Hualong One MOU in 2015.
Sudan Framework
agreement in 2016.
South Africa Thyspunt CAP1400 Preparing to bid.

UAE MoU in 2019

Armenia Metsamor Discussion
Thailand Hualong One MOU in 2018.
Cambodia MOU in 2017.
Tajikistan MOU in 2017.
Uganda MOU in 2018.
Bangladesh Expressed interest.

Lami Kim

well. Given the tight relationship between the two countries, the prospect for
China’s exports of nuclear reactors seems bright.
Finally, China is negotiating for nuclear cooperation with a number of
other countries. CNNC is competing with Russia’s Rosatom and South
Korea’s Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) to resurrect a nuclear power
plant on the Battan Peninsula in the Philippines, which has been mothballed
since the 1980s.25 In 2015, China and Kenya signed a MoU to discuss the de-
velopment of Kenya’s nuclear power and also the provision of nuclear train-
ing and capacity building assistance to Kenya. In 2016, China signed a pre-
liminary agreement with Sudan to build the African country’s first nuclear
power plant.26 In September 2017, CNNC signed an agreement with Brazil’s
Eletronuclear to promote the construction of Brazil’s third nuclear power
plant, Angra 3, and potentially two more in the future, although there are
other competitors, mainly Russia’s Rosatom and France’s EDF.27 China has
discussed nuclear cooperation with many others, as well (see Figure 1 above).
Although China is a relative newcomer to the global nuclear market, it is
vying for a number of nuclear deals mentioned above and will likely become a
dominant actor in the market. China’s competitive price and state-led financ-
ing make it an attractive nuclear vendor. With its large domestic market, the
Chinese nuclear industry can reach economies of scale and reduce production
costs. Although once nuclear power plants are built, the cost for electricity
generation from nuclear energy is significantly lower than other sources of
energy, building the plants incurs huge upfront costs (billions of dollars per
unit). Many developing countries require at least partial external financing.
Thus, China’s generous financing to cover the enormous upfront costs is hard
to decline, particularly for impoverished and energy-hungry countries. In ad-
dition, China can build nuclear power plants quickly. The first Hualong One
reactor that went online in November 2020 was completed ahead of schedule,
only five years after construction began. This is a remarkable feat considering
the fact that a number of nuclear power plants built by other countries have
been significantly delayed. Lastly, with the development of its homegrown
technologies, China can offer even better prices without having to pay licens-
ing fees for American and French models it used previously.
The rise of China as a nuclear vendor coincided with the decline of tra-
ditional nuclear supplier countries. The United States once enjoyed a virtual

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

monopoly in the nuclear market, but its share has dropped to a mere 20 per-
cent.28 Until recently, three major nuclear vendors, the United States, France
and Japan, had supplied three-fourths of the world’s nuclear reactors. Now,
nuclear sectors in these countries are in financial turmoil. The U.S. firm
Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy and was later sold to Japan’s Toshiba,
which also recorded a net loss of $8.6 billion for 2016–2017.29 The French firm
Areva accumulated net losses of EUR 7.5 billion from 2014 through 2016.30
The American and Japanese nuclear industries are struggling domestically, be-
cause the attractiveness of nuclear energy is waning. This is due to inexpensive
gas and subsidies for renewables in the former, and the 2011 Fukushima ac-
cident in the latter. South Korea, the world’s fifth largest nuclear power pro-
ducer and a promising nuclear vendor that has built four nuclear reactors in
the UAE, decided to phase out nuclear energy in 2017. As Jennifer Gordon
puts it, “it is challenging to export a product that lacks a domestic market.”31
Currently, the only real contender for China in the global nuclear market
is Russia, but China arguably has a greater potential than Russia. Russia is
currently the dominant nuclear vendor taking up about 60 percent of global
reactor sales and technical assistance as of 2018. Russia’s state-owned nuclear
corporation, Rosatom, offers full-service packages, the so-called Build, Own,
Operate (BOO) deals, with generous financing. Russia also offers to take back
the spent fuel from the reactors it sells, thereby removing the burden of waste
disposal from the importing country. None of the recipient countries are cur-
rently taking advantage of Russia’s offer, but this aspect could potentially
serve as an advantage.
However, China seems to be on track to dominate the nuclear market in
the near future. China, like Russia, provides generous financing packages, and
it boasts far greater financial strengths. Since sanctions imposed on Russia in
the wake of its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s GDP has contracted
by 1 to 1.5 percent annually.32 China has by far the largest (non-gold) foreign
exchange reserves of any country of $3.13 trillion in 2019, while that of Russia
was only $444 billion in the same year.33 The gap is likely to grow further
given that Russia has been harder hit by COVID-19 than China with a pro-
jected GDP of -4 percent in 2020,34 while China’s economy managed to grow
by estimated 2.3 percent in the same year.35 In addition, far more than Russia,
China is already cooperating with a great number of countries through trade

Lami Kim

and infrastructure projects in various sectors, which may make it easier for
China to win nuclear contracts in those countries.

Global Implications of the Nuclear Belt and Road

The rise of China in the global nuclear market has important implications
for global nuclear governance, the global balance of power, and environment/
nuclear safety.

Global Nuclear Governance

The Nuclear Belt and Road will affect global nuclear governance. As China
gains a bigger share in the nuclear market, it will have more influence over
rules and norms. What will nuclear governance look like under Chinese lead-
ership? Will China seek to maintain the existing nonproliferation regimes
shaped largely by the United States and its like-minded Western allies, or will
it try to revise them?
Some argue that since the 1980s China has internalized nonprolifera-
tion principles, transformed itself into a sincere advocate of those norms,
and thus will likely maintain the status quo. Until the 1980s, China criti-
cized multilateral nonproliferation efforts as “conspiracy” on the part of the
United States and the Soviet Union aimed at maintaining their “nuclear
monopoly.”36 Furthermore, Beijing promoted the spread of nuclear weap-
ons by socialist countries arguing nuclear weapons would have a stabiliz-
ing effect by balancing the massive nuclear arsenals of Western powers.37
Beijing also provided Pakistan with a secret blueprint for a nuclear bomb
as well as highly-enriched (weapons-grade) uranium in the 1970s when
Pakistan was widely believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons in order to
match India’s nuclear capabilities demonstrated by its 1974 nuclear test.
Reversing its longstanding antipathy toward nonproliferation and nuclear
export control, in the 1980s and the 1990s Beijing joined most of the key
nonproliferation regimes, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and the Zangger Committee.
It also signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Additionally,
China incorporated the international nuclear export norms stipulated in
the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) into its domestic legal system. In the
mid-1990s, Beijing largely dropped proliferation-prone nuclear assistance

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

FIGURE 2. China’s Accession to the International Nonproliferation Regimes

Regime Roles Accession

IAEA (1957)* Inspects states’ civilian nuclear 1984


NPT (1968) Bans the spread of nuclear

weapons 1992
Guarantees peaceful use of
nuclear energy
Pursues nuclear disarmament

CTBT (1996) Bans all nuclear explosions 1996

for both civilian and military

Zangger Committee Determines nuclear items that 1997

(1971) require IAEA inspections

NSG (1978) Restricts sensitive nuclear 1997

assistance and imposes (2004)**
conditions on nuclear exports as
well as dual-use exports that may
be used for both nuclear and
nonnuclear purposes

* The numbers in parentheses indicate the years, in which the regimes were established.

** Membership at the NSG requires unanimous consent of all members. China adopted
the NSG’s norms in 1997 and was accepted as a member in 2004.

that involves nuclear fissile material production capabilities, such as enrich-

ment and reprocessing (see Figure 2 above).
Has China embraced the nonproliferation norms? My research suggests
that what shifted China’s nonproliferation behavior were economic and stra-
tegic calculations, more specifically its pursuit of civil nuclear assistance from
the United States, rather than its embrace of the nonproliferation norms.
China sought foreign assistance when it started pursuing nuclear energy in

Lami Kim

earnest in the 1970s amid a severe power shortage problem caused by rapid
economic development that accompanied Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 economic
reforms.38 Although China tested its first nuclear weapons in 1964, it lacked
the necessary technology, human capacity and resources to build and oper-
ate nuclear power plants safely. One important obstacle to this plan was that
China’s initial refusal to participate in any of the nonproliferation regimes
along with its problematic nuclear export behavior served as an obstacle to
receiving nuclear assistance from other countries. In particular, the United
States required China’s accession to the nonproliferation regimes and rigorous
domestic nuclear export legislation as a precondition for nuclear assistance.39
China accommodated the American demands to join the nonproliferation re-
gimes and drop sensitive nuclear assistance in order to receive assistance for its
fledgling nuclear industry.40
The United States held huge leverage over China due to China’s strong
interest in the United States’ pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology.
Because the Chinese had ambitions to become a nuclear vendor after digesting
technology transferred from other countries, they were determined to acquire
nuclear technology that was proven to be safe and could be marketed widely in
the future.41 More than two-thirds of the world’s nuclear power stations were
using PWRs, which had adequate safety records. Although China was coop-
erating with France’s Framatome, which was licensed to build Westinghouse’s
PWR model reactors, China preferred to work with the United States, inven-
tor of the PWR technology. According to Robert Einhorn, who led prolif-
eration-related negotiations with the Chinese in the 1990s, the Chinese had
enormous respect for U.S. civil nuclear technology and considered the French
an “offshoot.” One Chinese official said to him: “Why buy from the son?  We
would rather buy from the father.”42 As such, a higher status was attached to
cooperation with the United States. In return for its adoption of the interna-
tional nonproliferation standards, China has acquired the PWR technology
from Westinghouse (AP1000 PWR model) that it desired, which it then used
to develop its own reactor models with its own intellectual property rights.
China’s nonproliferation behavior since its integration into the nonpro-
liferation regimes has not always met the standards of those regimes. First,
China has continued to engage in proliferation-prone assistance.43 In 1998,
for example, U.S. intelligence discovered that China had agreed to sell Iran

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

a key component for uranium enrichment, when it was widely believed that
Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. In addition, China continued to provide
Pakistan with civil nuclear assistance without requiring comprehensive IAEA
safeguards in violation of the NSG Guidelines. China insisted the deal was
made prior to China’s accession to the NSG in 2004.44 However, China never
mentioned the deal to NSG members before joining the NSG, which raises
the question of whether the deal was indeed made before 2004. In addition,
China could have tried to ask for NSG members’ approval for its assistance
to Pakistan but instead presented the deal as a fait accompli.45 Additionally,
China has sold WMD-capable missiles to countries that are believed to be nu-
clear aspirants, such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.46 China’s missile exports
do not directly violate the letters of the nuclear nonproliferation regimes, but
they contradict their spirit.
Second, Beijing’s enforcement of nuclear exports lags behind its domestic
nuclear export regulations. Although Beijing no longer engages in open, di-
rect state-to-state provision of illicit nuclear exports, Chinese private compa-
nies continue to proliferate illegally parts and dual-use items that can be used
for building nuclear weapons.47 Nonetheless, Beijing has neither appropri-
ately punished Chinese nationals involved in these activities under Chinese
domestic law, nor allocated sufficient resources for effective export controls.
When confronted with proliferation activities of its partner nations, Beijing’s
typical response is a strong denial of the alleged transaction and a demand
for evidence. When evidence is obvious, China has often argued that it can-
not control everything happening in its vast country.48 Although there may be
some truth to such claims given its large territory and population, the problem
is not just its lack of capacity, but also its lack of will, as Gary Samore puts
it.49 Similarly, Stephen G. Rademaker, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms
Control, called into “question China’s commitment to truly curb prolifera-
tion to certain states.”50
Third, China’s reluctance to impose and enforce economic sanctions
against nonproliferation norm violators betrays its indifference to nuclear
nonproliferation. Although Beijing played a key role in the mid-2000s in
convening negotiations aimed at North Korea’s denuclearization, Beijing has
been reluctant to constrain North Korea’s nuclear behavior by wielding its
enormous influence as its most important trading partner, food and energy

Lami Kim

provider, and political ally. Trade volume between the two countries increased
tenfold between 2000 and 2015 with a steep spike in 2011 despite North
Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Although Beijing has supported a se-
ries of UN sanctions, Beijing often dragged its feet seeking to dilute terms of
those sanctions,51 and it has evaded sanctions in order to prevent the North
Korean regime from collapsing with a subsequent threat of a refugee crisis.52
Similarly, between the June 2010 UN sanctions and the July 2015 Iran deal
(the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), Iranian exports to China (mostly
crude oil) grew by 24 percent and Chinese exports to Iran by 25 percent.53
Last but not least, unlike the United States, China does not take any mea-
sures to prevent recipients of its nuclear assistance from developing the capa-
bility to produce nuclear fissile materials. Nuclear bombs require fissile materi-
als, which can sustain a nuclear chain reaction that releases enormous energy.
All nuclear weapons contain either highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
Acquiring nuclear fissile materials requires sophisticated enrichment and re-
processing technologies. Once a state overcomes this hurdle and acquires such
capabilities, the state becomes capable of developing nuclear weapons easily
and quickly. For this reason, the United States requires its nuclear cooperating
partners to refrain from enriching or reprocessing U.S.-origin nuclear materi-
als without first obtaining U.S. consent. Exceptions were given for Euratom,
Japan and India, which had already acquired enrichment or reprocessing ca-
pabilities. Beyond these controls, the U.S. agreement with the United Arab
Emirates contains the latter’s legally binding commitment to refrain from
possessing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities permanently, which is
called the “golden standard.” Taiwan has made a similar commitment. China
is not taking similar measures that could enhance the effectiveness of the non-
proliferation regime. If China has not truly embraced the nonproliferation
norms, it may try to revise the existing norms once it enjoys dominance in the
nuclear vendor market and believes it will benefit from revisions.

Global Balance of Power

The rise of China in the global nuclear market has implications for the global
balance of power. With China’s rapid economic development and its growing
assertiveness under Xi Jinping, there have been concerns about China’s global
dominance and relative U.S. decline. China’s rising influence is noticeable in

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

various regions—Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America

and even in Western Europe. Other recent events strengthen those con-
cerns. U.S. diplomatic and economic ties with other countries were weakened
under President Trump. After the United States withdrew from the Trans-
Pacific Partnership in 2017, which would have served as a strategic tool to re-
duce China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region, China joined the Regional
Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade
agreement that will deepen Asian countries’ dependencies on China. Due to
contrasting economic performances during the pandemic in the United States
and China, China is set to overtake the United States as the world’s largest
economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously projected, according to the
Centre for Economics and Business Research’s December 2020 report.54
China’s Nuclear Belt and Road will likely expedite the shift in the global
balance of power away from the United States towards China. Export of
nuclear reactors lock in suppliers and recipients in tight relationships for 80
to 100 years or more.55 Nuclear exports normally come in packages that in-
clude not only the construction of nuclear power plants, which takes years,
but also nuclear fuel supplies, training for nuclear engineers and consulting
for safe operations of nuclear power plants. Once nuclear power plants begin
generating electricity, a stable supply of nuclear fuels becomes an important
energy security issue. Due to its sensitive nature and large-scale, long-term
operation, nuclear cooperation deepens relations among states. In addition,
nuclear vendors can threaten to suspend fuel supply for nuclear facilities,
leading to a major disruption in energy supply in those countries that lack
viable alternative energy sources. In this way, nuclear suppliers have long-
term influence on recipients’ “ability to advance energy security and broader
foreign policy interests.”56
States have long used nuclear exports as an instrument to boost ties with re-
cipient countries. For example, France provided civil nuclear assistance to oil
producing-states in the Middle East in the wake of the 1973 oil price hike to
ensure a stable supply of oil. Another example is the 2008 U.S.-India nuclear
deal that caused enormous controversies because India had already developed
nuclear weapons outside the nonproliferation regimes. That agreement was
part of Washington’s efforts to build a partnership with India, which has been
of strategic importance to the United States since the end of the Cold War.

Lami Kim

China has also used nuclear exports as a strategic tool. China’s nuclear ex-
ports to Pakistan are believed to be part of its strategy to strengthen the rela-
tionship between the two countries in order to counter threats from India.57
In addition, China uses nuclear exports to boost ties with its oil providers. For
example, Sudan, one of China’s main oil suppliers, was on the list of priorities
for Chinese nuclear exports in the Energy Development Strategic Action Plan
2014–2020 issued by the State Council.58 China even agreed to be paid in oil
instead of hard currency when it planned to construct a nuclear power plant
near Tehran in the 1990s.59
China’s nuclear exports will offer particularly strong strategic benefits due to
China’s enormous financial backing. As mentioned above, Chinese firms offer
billions of dollars to finance the upfront costs of nuclear energy development,
which many developing countries may not pay back. China has lent hundreds
of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects to developing countries at un-
sustainable levels. As China is not a member of the Organization for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is not subject to the organization’s
export financing guidelines, which promotes sustainable lending practices in
protection of low income countries that face challenges in managing external
debt.60 According to the Center for Global Development, a Washington think
tank, “23 of 68 countries benefiting from Belt and Road investments were sig-
nificantly or highly vulnerable to debt distress” and “debt problems will create
an unfavorable degree of dependency on China as a creditor.”61 When those
countries fail to pay pack their debts, China may seek to take over their stra-
tegic assets, a so-called “debt-for-equity swap.” When Sri Lanka defaulted on
the contract to build Hambantota Port, China took the right to lease the port
and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years. Currently, as Zambia is failing
to make payments for China’s infrastructure projects, Chinese firms are seek-
ing to take the Konkola Copper mines instead.62 Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad characterized China’s practices as neocolonial and can-
celled a number of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in his country.63 If
recipient countries default on the Chinese loans borrowed for nuclear projects,
which is a plausible scenario given the massive scale of the debts, China may try
to seize collateral of strategic value, as well.
Nuclear exports may further increase economic dependency of recipi-
ent countries on China, which China will utilize for geostrategic purposes.

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

China has not been shy about wielding its economic clout to achieve diplo-
matic ends. Beijing has “weaponized tariffs, restricted exports, discouraged
its citizens from tourism, instigated public boycotts, and shut down foreign
companies.”64 To take just a few examples, in 2010, in the wake of disputes
over the Senkaku Islands, China suspended its exports to Japan of rare-earth
minerals, essential elements for cars, consumer electronics, computers, and the
like. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in
2017, Beijing restricted imports of Norwegian salmon. When South Korea de-
ployed the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
in 2016 against China’s will, Beijing retaliated against South Korea’s automo-
bile, smartphone, tourism, and cosmetics industries, which led to a decrease
in the country’s 2017 GDP by 0.4 percent.⁠65 Since Canberra requested an
international probe on the origins of COVID-19, Beijing has been imposing
trade restrictions on Australia. China’s nuclear exports will increase recipi-
ents’ reliance on China, which China will likely utilize for political purposes.
Additionally, one cannot rule out the possibility that China will threaten to
suspend nuclear fuel supply as leverage, which would likely lead to a major
disruption in energy supplies in those countries that lack viable alternative
sources of energy. Particularly, in light of Xi Jinping’s bullying tactics that
leverage his country’s increasing economic clout, there is reasonable concern
that Beijing will take advantage of its nuclear exports for geopolitical purposes.
The impact of China’s nuclear exports on the global balance of power po-
tentially will be significant, as more than 20 countries have already expressed
interest in nuclear energy, while some 30 countries are currently considering,
planning or launching nuclear energy programs.66 It is not hard to imagine
that a large portion of those countries will rely on nuclear power plants built,
financed, and fueled by China. As China takes control over more strategic
assets in return for debt waivers and wields stronger political and economic
clout around the globe, it will challenge U.S. influence.

Environment and Nuclear Safety

The Nuclear Belt and Road will also have mixed implications for the environ-
ment. On the one hand, China’s nuclear exports will help the international
community tackle climate change, as nuclear energy is carbon free, and allevi-
ates the air pollution problem caused by fine particulate matter generated by

Lami Kim

burning coal. Today, fossil fuel is still the world’s primary energy source, ac-
counting for nearly 70 percent of the world’s electricity generation in 2018.67
As demand for energy in the countries participating in the BRI is expected to
increase significantly, concerns about environmental damage rise. According
to Tsinghua Center for Finance and Development based in Beijing, if the
more than 120 BRI countries follow the traditional carbon-intense growth
paths, global temperatures will rise nearly 3 degrees C, even if the rest of the
world sticks to their targets to reduce carbon emissions.68 Beijing has empha-
sized that the BRI would promote sustainable development based on renew-
able energy under the banner of “Green Belt and Road,” but renewable energy
is not yet a reliable and affordable alternative to fossil fuels. Without China’s
nuclear exports, BRI countries would have to rely on fossil fuels, particularly
coal, to meet their growing energy demands as they develop, as most of these
countries lack the technical and financial capacity to build nuclear power
plants on their own. Seen in this light, the Nuclear Belt and Road may be a
boon for the environment.
On the other hand, the environment will be enhanced only if nuclear fa-
cilities are operated safely. Unfortunately, concerns have arisen about China’s
nuclear safety standards both within China and abroad. Admittedly, there
have not been any significant accidents at China’s nuclear facilities. Also,
Beijing has tightened nuclear safety regulations since the 2011 Fukushima
disaster. Shortly after the incident, China’s National Nuclear Safety
Administration conducted inspections on nuclear facilities in China and
identified areas for improvement in emergency preparedness.69 On paper,
Beijing’s emphasis on nuclear safety is well demonstrated. In 2019, the State
Council published the white paper, entitled “Nuclear Safety in China,”
which states that Beijing has always regarded nuclear safety as an “important
national responsibility, and integrated it into the entire process of nuclear
energy development and utilization.” It also states that the Chinese nuclear
industry has “always developed in line with the latest safety standards and
maintained a good safety record, pursuing an innovation-driven path of nu-
clear safety with Chinese characteristics.” 70
Despite Beijing’s official stance, concerns about China’s nuclear safety have
been raised about Chinese nuclear exports. Li Yulun, a former vice-president
of the CNNC observed that nuclear firms do not seem to share Beijing’s high

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

priority on nuclear safety.71 Quoting He Zuoxiu, a pro-Communist Party,

Chinese nuclear expert, who described Beijing’s ambitious nuclear plans as
“insane” due to its safety provisions, Murong Xuecun argued that “[f]rom ev-
erything we know of Chinese building and supervision practices, an accident
in a Chinese nuclear power station is just a question of when and where.” 72
Concerns about China’s nuclear safety are driven by both technical and
human factors. From a technical standpoint, because China’s homegrown nu-
clear technologies are new, their safety has not been tested. Problems with new
technologies normally do not show up immediately and appear over time. At
this point, we simply do not know whether the Chinese reactors will operate
safely during their entire life span of 40 to 80 years. While other nuclear sup-
pliers, such as the United States, France, Japan and South Korea, also exported
their own technologies before they fully withstood the test of time, what dis-
tinguishes China from other nuclear powers is a lack of transparency and ram-
pant corruption problems. In the United States, even the smallest problems
related to nuclear safety are reported. The same is true in France, Japan and
South Korea. They report their problems to the International Atomic Energy
Agency’s “International Reporting System for Operating Experience,” where
nuclear experts share their experiences with the goal of improving operation
and maintenance capabilities and reducing nuclear incidents.73 China does
not do so. As long as China is not transparent about their operation and main-
tenance capabilities, concerns about China’s nuclear safety will remain.
Adding to the concern is China’s poor track record in general industrial
safety that has been rife with “rash planning, endemic corruption and careless
construction, supervision and regulation.” 74 China has one of the highest in-
dustrial fatality rates in the world. In 2014 alone, about 66,000 died from in-
dustrial catastrophes in China.75 For example, the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
incurred notable human costs due to slipshod construction methods and sub-
standard buildings, which resulted in the collapse of schools that killed over
5,000 pupils.76 Such events are a result of a culture where local officials com-
plete construction before target dates using substandard materials in order to
impress their superiors and reduce costs.77 More than 10 years after the earth-
quake, construction safety still remains problematic. In 2015, a warehouse
in Tianjin, housing highly flammable chemical materials (sodium cyanide)
beyond the permitted amount, exploded killing more than 170 people. The

Lami Kim

damage was greater because the warehouse was built too close to residential
areas against regulations.78 It was later revealed that the key shareholders were
able to circumvent these safety regulations through their connection to the
police force.79 There is no guarantee that the nuclear industry is immune to
the rampant problems that undermine China’s general industry safety.
Safety concerns are greater for China’s overseas projects. However, even
within China regulation standards vary greatly in different regions. For ex-
ample, chemical establishments in major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai,
and Guangdong, are well-regulated, while second-tier cities, such as Henan,
Hebei, and Shandong have a mixed track record when it comes to regulation
adherence and enforcement. It is not hard to imagine that safety standards ap-
plied abroad may be less stringent than those at home. Also, it is questionable
if Chinese firms would be willing to implement costly safety measures when
they seek to offer attractive prices. Last but not least, most of the potential
recipient countries never had any nuclear regulations and lack experience and
personnel to handle nuclear energy safely. Unlike the United States, which
requires its recipient countries to join multilateral nuclear safety agreements
and adhere to additional safety mechanisms as a condition of supply pursuant
to the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, China’s nuclear exports do not attach any
such strings.

China’s Nuclear Belt and Road is an issue of significant importance for
Washington. Since the beginning of the nuclear era, the United States has
led the international community’s efforts to build the global nonprolifera-
tion regime, which has made important contributions to curbing the spread
of nuclear weapons. Any attempts to undermine global nuclear governance is
an issue of grave importance for the United States and international security.
Additionally, China’s increasing influence over BRI regions would weaken the
U.S. position in its competition with China across the globe. Lastly, nuclear
accidents, wherever they occur, could pose a significant threat to all humanity.
Although the prospect for the Nuclear Belt and Road appears bright in
light of the pressing need for decarbonization, as well as China’s proactive
promotion with competitive pricing and state-backed financing, it is not too

Nuclear Belt and Road: China’s Ambition for Nuclear Exports and Its Global Implications

late for Washington to thwart China’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, the United
States has made such efforts with some success in Romania. In 2015, China
General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) agreed to build and operate two nu-
clear reactors at the Cernavoda plant in Romania. However, the plan has been
derailed since Romanian President Klaus Iohannis withdrew from the agree-
ment in June 2020. Four months later, Romania announced that AECOM, an
American investment company, instead of CGN, will build the two nuclear
reactors based on American technology in collaboration with Romanian,
Canadian, and French companies.80 This is a dramatic turnaround given that
Romania had previously welcomed the BRI and hoped to make its port in
Constanta an important hub for China’s Maritime Silk Road as the east gate
of the European Union.81 One reason for its decision to cancel the nuclear
deal with China, Bucharest mentioned, was CGN’s nuclear espionage case.82
In 2016, it was revealed that Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho, who acted as a proxy for
Beijing, helped CGN develop U.S.-based nuclear technology without the re-
quired permissions from the U.S. Department of Energy.83 Its preference to
work with democratic countries for nuclear cooperation was given as another
reason.84 Concerns about China’s diplomatic bullying as well as its state-
sponsored financing appears to have contributed to Bucharest’s decision.85
The fact that the decision came just months after the 2019 joint declaration
of Presidents Trump and Iohannis, in which they agreed to cooperate in civil
nuclear energy, suggests that U.S. diplomacy had an influence. The Romanian
case is a sign that China’s authoritarian character may hamper its ambition
for nuclear exports, and the United States, in cooperation with its likeminded
partners, can thwart China’s Nuclear Belt and Road.
To that end, I suggest the following recommendations.

● Enhance U.S. capacity to compete with China in the global

nuclear market.

» To this end, the United States should collaborate with nuclear

firms from allied countries. Although U.S. competitiveness in
nuclear reactor construction is declining, the United States still has
comparative advantages in safe operation and management of nuclear
facilities. Thus, the United States should combine strengths from

Lami Kim

multiple partners and form a consortium with nuclear firms from

France, Japan and/or South Korea that have strength in constructing
nuclear power plants.
» The United States should find ways to offer attractive financing
for its nuclear exports. Washington’s decision to lift a ban on the
Export-Import Bank’s financing nuclear projects is a step in the right
direction.86 But the United States alone cannot match China’s lavish
financing and thus should promote international co-financing with
likeminded countries.
» The United States should promote the development of next generation
nuclear technology that would enhance its competitive position over
China. In particular, the United States should invest in developing
small modular reactors, which are smaller and more affordable and
thus do not require huge financing. Also, they are more suitable for
many developing countries that lack large electric power grids.

● Raise awareness about the danger of cooperating with China through

diplomatic channels and public outreach.

» As a nuclear vendor, China also has weaknesses, which may offset its
strengths. China’s authoritarian political system serves as a liability.
Given its chronic corruption problem, lack of transparency and shady
business practices, such as theft of intellectual property, nuclear
cooperation with China raises both ethical and safety concerns, of
which the United States should inform potential nuclear buyers.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the of-
ficial policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense,
the U.S. Government, or the Wilson Center.

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Lami Kim

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problematic nonproliferation track records.

Lami Kim

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Lami Kim

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Policy Collaging:
Transnationalizing Analysis
of Chinese Policymaking

Wendy Leutert is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and

the GLP-Ming Z. Mei Chair of Chinese Economics
and Trade, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and
International Studies and the Department of East Asian
Languages and Cultures at Indiana University.
Wendy Leutert

Transnational movements of people and ideas have shaped the economy and
enterprises of the People’s Republic of China since 1949. Chinese officials and
researchers have routinely engaged with foreign actors and ideas through in-
ternational advisors, exchanges, examples, joint projects, and diaspora link-
ages. Cross-border movements of people and ideas can affect domestic poli-
cymaking in multiple ways, ranging from Chinese policymakers’ firsthand
experience through direct observation abroad to the internal circulation of
case studies. Through transnational engagement, policymakers can conduct
what I term “policy collaging”: seeking, selecting, and creatively combining
policy ideas and practices from international sources. I illustrate this practice
using a case study of Chinese state-owned enterprise restructuring. Policy col-
laging reveals the transnational content and context of Chinese policymak-
ing, questions its potential to yield convergence with other countries, and
highlights domestic agency.

Policy Recommendations
● Chinese officials and researchers routinely conduct “policy collaging”:
seeking, selecting, and creatively combining policy ideas and practices
from international sources.

● Policy “collages” may yield points of congruence without convergence.

● China has consistently engaged actors and ideas from abroad to

restructure its state-owned enterprises while retaining a state-led model of
economic development.

● To understand policy origins and pathways for potential influence,

analysts should transnationalize analysis of Chinese policymaking by
studying the international elements in policies addressing state-owned
enterprises, corporate governance, the social credit system, and other
issue areas.

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

● Expanded engagement of Chinese policymakers outside of

international organizations and transnational advocacy networks
could leverage international advisors, exchanges, examples, joint
projects, and diaspora linkages.

● U.S. policymakers should establish realistic expectations for policy

influence through transnational engagement, and analysts must
foreground domestic actors’ agency. Despite U.S. efforts to engage and
influence Chinese policymakers, there is limited capacity for outside
actors to spur policy change without active buy-in from domestic players.

Wendy Leutert

As Chinese official Wang Quanguo recalled his visit to Europe on a study tour
in 1978: “More than a month of inspection opened our eyes and thinking,
what we saw and heard shocked every person’s heart, one could say that we
were very stimulated! Closed off, we always thought that China was a world
power, supported the Third World at every turn, and that capitalism was de-
caying. When we went abroad to have a look, we discovered that this was not
the case at all.”1 In contrast to accounts of policymaking centered on elites,
decision-making, and experimentation within China’s borders, Wang’s rec-
ollection highlights the role of transnational engagement in domestic policy
processes. Chinese officials and researchers routinely engage foreign ideas and
practices at home and abroad, formulating policies by eclectically combining
domestic and international elements.
Transnational movements of people and ideas have shaped policymaking
in the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949. Soviet mod-
els, exchanges, and experts strongly influenced the new communist govern-
ment’s international economic relations and the national economy, as evident
in the embrace of centralized economic planning, takeover of industry and
commerce, and collectivization of agriculture.2 Since the 1950s, Chinese bu-
reaucrats have also routinely corresponded and traded visits with officials and
scholars in other countries, including Japan, South Korea, and India.3 Even
during the 1960s, when international interactions were less frequent, Chinese
policymakers continued to study other countries. During the reform era,
movements of people and ideas between China and the world had even greater
impact on domestic policymaking.4
Through transnational engagement, domestic actors can conduct what I
term “policy collaging”: seeking, selecting, and creatively combining policy ideas
and practices from international sources. Policy collaging may involve multiple
international sources during a compressed timeframe; it may also happen itera-
tively over longer periods of time. Transnational engagement can occur in mul-
tiple ways, including through international advisors, exchanges, examples, joint
projects, and diaspora linkages. Policymakers then pick out and interpret policy
ideas and practices from different international sources, pitch them within the
bureaucracy and in some cases also to the public, select which to incorporate or
discard, and finally combine and recombine them in novel ways.

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

Policy collaging advances analysis of Chinese policymaking in several ways.

First, it expands standard accounts of policymaking centered on domestic
elites, decision-making, and experimentation by highlighting the incorpora-
tion of ideas and practices from abroad. Although international organizations
and transnational advocacy networks are well known as sites in which states
like China may be socialized to alter existing policies,5 transnational engage-
ment frequently occurs outside of these settings.6 Second, policy collaging
helps to explain why policy outcomes, even in similar issue areas, may differ
widely across states. This is because policy collaging generates points of con-
gruence without fundamental convergence in either preferences or outcomes.
Finally, policy collaging shifts the focus from socialization of Chinese actors
through transnational engagement to domestic agency.
This report proceeds as follows. The following section reviews transna-
tional engagement between China and other countries from 1949 to the
present. Next, it introduces the concept of policy collaging and explains the
ways in which transnational engagement occurs and in turn affects domestic
policymaking. Drawing on archival materials and informed by interviews,
a case study of state-owned enterprise restructuring illustrates how policy
collaging occurs in practice.7 The report concludes by discussing how pol-
icy collaging advances the analysis of Chinese policymaking and outlining
areas for future research.

Transnational Engagement in the

People’s Republic of China
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao
Zedong prioritized the Soviet Union as the new government’s most important
financial supporter, military ally, and modernization model.8 China’s partici-
pation in the Korean War (1950–1953) further strengthened the Sino-Soviet
alliance by deepening bilateral communication and coordination. After the
war’s end, the Soviet leadership initially continued to support China’s eco-
nomic and military modernization at home and developed joint diplomatic
positions abroad into the mid-1950s. However, Sino-Soviet ties deteriorated
as Mao and Nikita Khrushchev clashed repeatedly over China’s policies to-
ward India, Taiwan, and Tibet. Khrushchev slashed economic and technical

Wendy Leutert

assistance to Beijing and formally recalled Soviet experts in 1960, prompting a

breakdown in bilateral relations by the mid-1960s.
After the Sino-Soviet split, Beijing pursued closer ties with developing
countries in the 1960s while closely monitoring political and economic devel-
opments in the Soviet Union and United States. The Chinese leadership em-
braced socialist internationalism, providing ideological and material support
to independence movements from Asia to Africa. Mao envisioned creating
an international united front against Soviet and American imperialism and
revisionism, targeting countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Ghana, and
Cuba. However, these efforts foundered as some states sought closer ties with
the Soviet Union, while regime changes eliminated leaders friendly to China
in others. At home, Mao’s launch of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)
fueled leftist radicalism and xenophobia. The once standard study of interna-
tional examples, such as economic policymakers’ analyses of foreign corporate
forms, in some cases instead became evidence of political wrongdoing.9
China’s rapprochement with the United States fundamentally altered its
international relations in the 1970s. Visits to Beijing by Henry Kissinger and
Richard Nixon set U.S.-China relations on the course toward normaliza-
tion and catalyzed breakthroughs in China’s diplomatic relationships with
European countries and regional neighbors like Japan.10 Although high-level
official interactions between Beijing and foreign governments were initially
limited, lower-level exchanges of researchers and technical experts flourished.
Between 1973 and 1977, hundreds of Chinese delegations traveled to coun-
tries including United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and
Sweden to study topics ranging from pest control to railway technology.11
The advent of the reform and opening movement in 1978 catalyzed even
greater engagement between China and the world. With the support of Hua
Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping, high-ranking Chinese officials led delega-
tions around the globe, from Hong Kong to Japan to the United Kingdom.12
Foreign governments receiving them were eager to forge closer diplomatic
ties with Beijing—and to position themselves for access to Chinese markets.
Beyond pledges of loans and technology exports to Beijing, foreign govern-
ments also established new channels for cross-border movements of peoples
and ideas in education, culture, and other areas.13 During the late 1970s,
China’s leadership also invited experts from Japan and West Germany to serve

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

as economic advisors to the State Council, eager to learn from their countries’
rapid post-war economic growth.14
Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies accelerated transnational movements
of people and ideas between China and the world well into the 1980s. The
Chinese leadership prioritized greater engagement with the United States
through high-level state visits and expanded official, cultural, and educational
exchanges.15 Beijing also embraced closer ties with its Asian neighbors, turn-
ing to Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore as referents for policies from state-
owned enterprise restructuring to the development of special economic zones.
The World Bank also became an important broker of capital and ideas for
Chinese economic policymakers after China rejoined in 1980.16 However, the
Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 ended China’s diplomatic honey-
moon, and sanctions and condemnation replaced international engagement.
During the 1990s, the Chinese leadership adjusted diplomatic course
while deepening economic reforms. China’s government tried to reinvigorate
its relationships with developing countries while simultaneously mending ties
with Washington. These efforts assumed even greater urgency with the disso-
lution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The following year, Deng stressed the im-
portance of economic openness during travels to southern China, and his suc-
cessor Jiang Zemin announced the objective of developing a “socialist market
economy.”17 China also requested to accede to the World Trade Organization
(WTO) in 1995, initiating a protracted but ultimately successful negotiation
effort. During this period, the international financial and legal community
proved another important source of policy ideas and practices.
Until the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019, transnational movements of
people and ideas between China and the world during the twenty-first century
occurred with even greater frequency and scale. Increasingly, China is a seller
as well as a shopper in the global marketplace of policy ideas. Beijing is reshap-
ing the landscape of international relations and development by changing ex-
isting multilateral institutions from within and establishing new ones. Within
Asia, transnational exchanges are intensifying even as territorial disputes stoke
regional tensions. Moscow is again a key diplomatic partner for Beijing, albeit
no longer a main source of ideas for economic policymaking. Overall, there is
far less openness to foreign ideas and practices under China’s current leader Xi
Jinping, despite greater international engagement. And in global capitals from

Wendy Leutert

Washington to Brussels, concerns are rising about the security implications of

Chinese overseas investment and educational exchanges.

Policy Collaging
Through transnational engagement, policymakers can conduct what I term
policy collaging: seeking, selecting, and creatively combining policy ideas and
practices from international sources. Such eclectic conjoining may take place
over a long period of time, as a government repeatedly modifies policies in
a particular area by successively engaging different international actors and
incorporating alternative ideas and practices. Policy collaging may also tran-
spire within a shorter timeframe, for example when a government sends out a
delegation to collect international policy ideas and practices and then chooses
among and creatively combines them. Another way in which policy collag-
ing occurs during a limited time span is when a government convenes experts
from different countries to present information on their policies and then se-
lects particular elements to incorporate in their own policymaking.
Both China’s international relations and domestic politics shape policy col-
laging. As described above, the frequency and intensity of China’s engagement
with other countries has varied over time. Yet transnational movements of peo-
ple and ideas do not always neatly track shifting diplomatic relationships. People
and ideas routinely traverse the borders between China and its allies, its rivals,
and even states with which it does not possess diplomatic relations. Diaspora
ties connect the mainland with Chinese communities in Asia and around the
world, despite fluctuations in bilateral relationships. And even during periods of
diplomatic estrangement, actors in China pay close attention to developments
overseas. Domestic politics at national, organizational, and individual levels also
influences transnational engagement and its policy effects. Top leaders set broad
policy directions that prioritize or discourage engagement with specific coun-
tries and ideas. Particular organizations and their heads may privilege interna-
tional actors or ideas from overseas which they perceive can help them to ad-
vance their objectives and obtain additional resources.18 At the individual level,
unique personal and professional experiences generate divergent interests and
identities, and thus varying preferences for engagement with particular foreign
actors and ideas.19 Figure 1 below summarizes these dynamics.

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

FIGURE 1: Transnational Engagement and Domestic Policymaking

international relations

transnational engagement

domestic politics

domestic policymaking

Transnational engagement may occur in multiple ways, including: inter-

national advisors, exchanges, examples, joint projects, and diaspora linkages.
Foreign experts can serve as formal or informal advisors to the Chinese gov-
ernment by offering policy advice on specific issues of concern. Exchanges
across national borders involving actors in China and abroad occur in-person
and via other mediums. Actors in China also study international examples,
ranging from analyses of national economies to case studies of particular for-
eign companies. In addition, transnational engagement can occur through
joint projects between governments, while diaspora linkages can facilitate it
via shared linguistic and cultural ties.
Transnational movements of people and ideas can affect domestic poli-
cymaking through multiple channels. The most immediate pathway is di-
rect experience: when Chinese officials or researchers engage in observation
abroad, or when they interact with international actors in China or overseas.
Information and ideas from abroad can also be disseminated within the
Chinese bureaucracy and incorporated into the policy process through for-
mal oral and written reporting or private, informal communications. Another
potential avenue is presentations at government-convened meetings involv-
ing larger groups of officials and enterprise representatives. Information and
ideas from overseas can also be circulated within and beyond the bureaucracy
through internal government journals, external talks, or the publication of
books and articles for a mass audience. The following section examines trans-

Wendy Leutert

national engagement and policy collaging in the context of Chinese state-

owned enterprise restructuring.

Case Study: State-Owned Enterprise Restructuring

Since 1949, Chinese policymakers have conducted successive rounds of policy
collaging to restructure the country’s state-owned enterprises. Over time, they
sought out, selected, and creatively combined policy ideas and practices from
different international sources. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
came to power in 1949, the Soviet Union initially served as China’s primary
model of socialist economic development.20 Mao’s policy of “leaning to one
side” (yi bian dao) between 1949 and 1959 intensified engagement with the
Soviet Union and study of the Soviet economy and enterprises. Then CCP
Central Committee member Xi Zhongxun, who managed Soviet experts dur-
ing the 1950s, supported deeper bilateral ties to accelerate industrialization
efforts while urging the selective incorporation of policy ideas and practices
from abroad: “Foreign experts can only help us, relying on the thinking of
foreign experts is dangerous.”21 Chinese policymakers worked closely with the
Soviet Union to develop the first Five Year Plan (1953–1957), which called
for joint state management of private enterprises as a prelude to full national-
ization. Mao declared the “socialist transformation” of Chinese industry of-
ficially complete in early 1956, although the state did not immediately assume
full operational control over these hybrid enterprises.
In the early 1960s, Chinese policymakers quietly looked to the United
States and European countries for examples of industrial consolidation. The
State Economic Commission (SEC), under the leadership of Bo Yibo and
with the support of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, explored the develop-
ment of sector-wide “corporate trusts” (tuolasi).22 Informed by detailed inter-
nal studies of business monopolies in advanced capitalist countries, such as
General Electric and Westinghouse Electric, they contended that restructur-
ing state-owned assets in this way could accelerate industrialization by ver-
tically integrating industries and centralizing resource allocation.23 In 1964,
the SEC launched a pilot scheme with top CCP leadership and State Council
approval that established 12 centrally-controlled corporate trusts, including 9
national pilot enterprises, and 3 regional (cross-provincial) pilot enterprises.24

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

After foundering on opposition from local governments and enterprises, the

start of the Cultural Revolution abruptly terminated this experimental effort.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Chinese policymakers turned from studying
advanced economies in the West to the emerging economic powers of East
Asia. Specifically, Beijing looked to the semi-autonomous state-owned en-
terprise groups (qiye jituan) pioneered by East Asian developmental states.
Through a series of international exchanges, Chinese officials and economists
studied the structure and operations of enterprise groups in Japan and South
Korea. They published detailed analyses of these firms and recommendations
for how these corporate forms could be adapted to advance China’s develop-
mental objectives.
In the 1990s, Chinese policymakers again cited the example of Japanese
enterprises to justify creating shareholding enterprises (gufen qiye) and par-
tially privatizing state-owned enterprise assets through public share issuance
on domestic and overseas stock exchanges. For example, a delegation led by
the National State-Owned Assets Administration Bureau concluded after
a month of studying Japan’s NEC Corporation that minority shareholding
would not threaten state control and oversight, 25 and it could even promote
improved performance and governance.26 In addition, international under-
writers, lawyers, and investors also played a major role in restructuring China’s
largest industrial state firms for partial public listing on stock markets in
Hong Kong, New York, and London.27
In the twenty-first century, China has developed a set of globally com-
petitive state-owned enterprises while simultaneously privatizing a portion
of their assets. The Chinese government’s design of a central-level govern-
ment ownership agency in 2003, the State-owned Assets Supervision and
Administration Commission (SASAC), drew directly from international
models like Singapore’s state-owned holding company Temasek.28 This
“Singapore model” appealed to Chinese policymakers because it promised to
satisfy the legal needs of state-owned enterprises operating as market actors
under professional management without the loss of state ownership.29 SASAC
has routinely conducted exchanges with Temasek, ranging from the annual
SASAC-Temasek Directors Forum to reciprocal leadership visits. Singapore
and Temasek provided important inspiration for Chinese state-owned enter-
prises’ development of corporate governance institutions, especially during

Wendy Leutert

SASAC’s early years.30 However, China’s situation differed considerably due

to its larger state-owned economy, lack of top-level political will to under-
take far-reaching market reform, corruption challenges, and state-owned en-
terprises’ enduring strategic functions.31 These differences have become even
more prominent over the course of the 2010s and now 2020s.32
Policy collaging in China’s state-owned enterprise restructuring involved
discarding as well as incorporating ideas and practices from abroad. For ex-
ample, Chinese policymakers were never interested in privatizing the largest
industrial state-owned enterprises. As a Japanese scholar described Chinese
policymakers’ study of Japanese enterprise groups: “There was a feeling that
enterprise groups were a neutral policy. But privatization was not neutral.”33
Nor did the Chinese government permit state-owned enterprises to develop
their own autonomous financial entities similar to the “main bank” system
characteristic of Japanese financial-type enterprise groups. In addition, the
CCP has continued to control many state-owned enterprises by appointing
and assessing their top leaders. Such differences reflect both variation in start-
ing conditions and deeper ideological disparities concerning enterprise orga-
nization and the state’s role in the economy.

Advancing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

The concept of policy collaging advances analysis of Chinese policymaking
in several ways. First, it expands domestic-centered accounts of Chinese poli-
cymaking by highlighting its transnational context and content. Numerous
studies stress competition among elite factions and state design of institutions
as primary drivers of domestic policymaking.34 Others detail how central or
sub-national government actors affect policy outcomes by exercising regula-
tory powers,35 as well as constitutive authority.36 Still others analyze sub-
national state or non-state actors’ innovation and coalition-building in the
context of administrative decentralization.37 Externally-imposed economic
or political pressures sometimes factor into these accounts, but foreign ac-
tors or ideas receive less attention. And although international organizations
and transnational advocacy networks are well known as sites of transnational
engagement, policy collaging reveals how it also frequently occurs outside of
these settings.38

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

Policy collaging also helps to explain China’s failure to evolve toward the
governance practices of advanced capitalist democracies like the United States.
This is because policy collaging can generate points of congruence without
fundamental convergence in preferences or outcomes. In policy areas like
arms control and disarmament, Chinese actors did adopt self-constraining
commitments even when they contradicted material self-interest.39 However,
the homogenizing effects of long-term socialization processes in international
organizations credited for this outcome are weaker in the shorter-term, more
issue-specific interactions involving international advisors, exchanges, or joint
projects.40 They are largely absent in non-interactive channels for transna-
tional engagement like the study of foreign examples. And even in policy areas
like money laundering, where China has officially endorsed global regulatory
standards, discretionary enforcement may weaken or even obviate conformity
to international norms in practice.41 In the state sector, the Chinese govern-
ment has formally restructured state-owned enterprises to improve their per-
formance and oversight, yielding apparent points of congruence like corporate
governance institutions. However, it remains fundamentally committed to a
state-led model of economic development.
Policy collaging therefore emphasizes domestic agency over international
influence. It inverts the teacher-student hierarchy often implicit in trans-
national learning accounts by suggesting that “students” have agency to
choose among “teachers” and draw conclusions that may differ from what is
“taught.” It shifts attention from “state agency” to “agency within the state”
by disaggregating government bodies and highlighting the varied actors and
channels involved in cross-border movements of policy ideas and practices.
It recasts bureaucrats as actors with significant autonomy to seek, select, and
creatively combine ideas and practices from international sources. This is
not to claim that powerful states or international organizations cannot use
inducements, threats, or coercion to push their preferred policy approaches
and thereby constrain policy collaging. International consensus too can in-
centivize—or even compel—the adoption of particular policy approaches.42
However, domestic actors retain significant agency to shape the form and
function of transnational linkages and their ultimate consequences for do-
mestic policy.

Wendy Leutert

Transnationalizing analysis of Chinese policymaking involves investigating
cross-border movements of people and ideas and assessing their domestic effects
in specific policy domains. Chinese officials and researchers routinely engage
with foreign actors and ideas through international advisors, exchanges, exam-
ples, joint projects, and diaspora linkages. This transnational engagement can
affect domestic policymaking via multiple mechanisms, ranging from Chinese
policymakers’ firsthand experience through direct observation abroad to the
circulation of case studies in internal government journals. Both China’s inter-
national relations and domestic politics delimit the scope of transnational en-
gagement and its policy effects. Through transnational engagement, domestic
actors can engage in “policy collaging”: seeking, selecting, and creatively com-
bining policy ideas and practices from international sources.
China has consistently engaged actors and ideas from abroad to restructure
its state-owned enterprises while retaining a state-led model of economic devel-
opment. Advisors and examples from the Soviet Union shaped the nationaliza-
tion of Chinese industry in the 1950s. In the first half of the 1960s, Chinese
policymakers studied business monopolies in advanced capitalist economies,
including the United States, during short-lived experimentation with corporate
trusts. In the 1980s and 1990s, China turned to Japan as it developed enterprise
groups, and then to the United States during the process of creating sharehold-
ing enterprises among its largest industrial state-owned enterprises. Finally, dur-
ing the 2000s, China studied Singapore as it formed central state-owned enter-
prises under the administration of a central-level government ownership agency.
Policy collaging through transnational engagement is evident in numerous
other policy areas in China. For instance, Chinese policymakers drew inspira-
tion for rural development through exchanges with South Korea and study of its
New Village movement starting from the 1950s.43 When developing the house-
hold registration (hukou) system, Chinese officials worked with Soviet advisors
and referenced the Soviet Union’s passbook system.44 The social credit system
originated in the People’s Bank of China’s adoption and adaptation of finan-
cial credit-rating and scoring systems from advanced capitalist economies in the
1990s.45 In corporate governance, the drafters of China’s company law eclecti-
cally combined elements from multiple countries, including supervisory boards
from Germany and a system of independent directors from the United States

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

and United Kingdom.46 Even the development of China’s 2015 national secu-
rity law involved the input of legal experts from the United States and Europe.47
Policy collaging advances analysis of Chinese policymaking in several
ways. It expands domestic-centered accounts of policymaking by highlight-
ing the incorporation of ideas and practices from abroad. It reveals additional
ways in which transnational engagement occurs, including international advi-
sors, exchanges, examples, joint projects, and diaspora linkages. It also helps
to explain why specific policy outcomes in China can differ significantly from
other countries. Policy “collages” may eclectically combine ideas and practices
from multiple international sources, yielding points of congruence without
fundamental convergence. Finally, policy collaging emphasizes domestic
agency over international influence, stressing Chinese actors’ ability to shape
transnational linkages and their ultimate policy consequences.
Today, China itself is becoming the subject of “policy collaging” by interna-
tional actors. For example, the World Food Programme is collaborating with
Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and governments in developing countries
to promote rural development by helping farmers access real-time information
about market prices for their agricultural produce.48 Justin Yifu Lin, the for-
mer World Bank Chief Economist and founding dean of the National School
of Development at Peking University, has served as an international advisor
by providing policy advice on industrial development to leaders of multiple
African countries including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Senegal.49
Massive government stimulus programs in response to the COVID-19
pandemic may even prompt American and European policymakers to follow
China’s lead and pursue a more interventionist state role in the economy.50
Increased high-level support for protectionist trade and investment policies,
a stronger state role in promoting innovation in strategic industries, reduced
reliance on foreign technology, and the rethinking of established limits on
export credits are all examples of this emerging trend.51 Instead of debating
whether states like China are playing by “our rules,” policy collaging thus re-
veals how transnational engagement between states has the potential to trans-
form the game itself—for all players.52

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

Wendy Leutert

I thank the Wilson China Fellowship Program at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars and the Carnegie Corporation of New York
for generous research support.

1. Wang Quanguo, then the vice-governor of Guangdong province, participated in a study tour
that Vice Premier Gu Mu led to France, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, and West Germany
in spring 1978. See, 吴敬琏 [Wu Jinglian]. Zhongguo jingji gaige jincheng [China’s Economic
Reform Process], (Beijing: Zhongguo dabaikequanshu chubanshe youxian gongsi, 2018).
2. Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-yu Li, eds., China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–Present,
(Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Austin Jersild, Sino-Soviet Alliance: An
International History, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014);
William C. Kirby, “China’s Internationalization in the Early People’s Republic: Dreams
of a Socialist World,” China Quarterly, no. 188 (2006): 870–890; Dwight H. Perkins, The
Economic Transformation of China (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015a).
3. Arunabh Ghosh, Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China,
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020); Kristen Looney, Mobilizing for Development:
The Modernization of Rural East Asia, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).
4. Martin Albers, Britain, France, West Germany and the People’s Republic of China, 1969–1982:
The European Dimension of China’s Great Transition, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
Sarah Eaton, “The Gradual Encroachment of an Idea: Large Enterprise Groups in China,” The
Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 31:2 (2014): 5–22; Julian Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners:
Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Modern China, (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2017); Sebastian Heilmann and Lea Shih, “The Rise of Industrial
Policy in China, 1978–2012,” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2013); Harold
Karan Jacobson and Michel Oksenberg, China’s Participation in the IMF, the World Bank,
and GATT: Toward a Global Economic Order, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press,
1990); Catherine H. Keyser, Professionalizing Research in Post-Mao China, (Armonk, NY: ME
Sharpe, 2003); Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun. “China’s New Economic Policy under
Hua Guofeng: Party Consensus and Party Myths,” The China Journal, 66 (2011): 1–23.
5. Terence C. Halliday and Bruce G. Carruthers, “The Recursivity of Law: Global Norm
Making And National Lawmaking in the Globalization of Corporate Insolvency
Regimes,” American Journal of Sociology 112:4 (2007): 1135–1202; Margaret E. Keck
and Kathryn Sikkink, “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional
Politics,” International Social Science Journal 51:159 (1999): 89–101.
6. “Transnational advocacy networks” refer to “those actors working internationally on an
issue, who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges
of information and services.” Keck and Sikkink, “Transnational Advocacy Networks in
International and Regional Politics,” 89.

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

7. All interviews cited in this article were conducted in accordance with protocols approved by
the Harvard University Institutional Review Board, protocol: IRB19–0511.
8. The Soviet Union provided a $300 million loan in 1950 that China used to build the first
50 projects in its First Five Year Plan (1953–1957); it also agreed to construct an additional
91 engineering projects in 1953 and an additional 15 projects in 1954. See, Hanbing Kong,
“The Transplantation and Entrenchment of the Soviet Economic Model in China,” in
Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-yu Li, eds., China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–Present
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010): 153–166. In addition, more than 50,000 Chinese
engineers, trainees, and students visited the Soviet Union and approximately 10,000 Soviet
and Eastern European specialists came to China. Millions of Soviet books were imported
to China, thousands of which were later translated into Chinese. See, Kirby, “China’s
Internationalization in the Early People’s Republic: Dreams of a Socialist World,” 884.
9. For example, criticisms of Liu Shaoqi during the Cultural Revolution frequently cited
his involvement in experimentation with “capitalist” corporate trusts. See, for example,
Hong dahui beijing kuangye xueyuan, dongfang hong pipan liu deng tao lianluo zhan [Red
Representative Association Beijing Mining Institute, Dong Fang Hong Criticize Liu Deng
Tao Contact Station], Chedi zalan ‘ liu ji tuolasi’ [Thoroughly Smashing ‘Liu-Advocated
Corporate Trusts’], June 28, 1967, published in Zhonggong zhongyao lishi wenxian ziliao
huibian, 4:33 [Compilation of Important Historical Documents of the Communist Party of
China] (Los Angeles: Zhongwen chubanwu fuwu zhongxin, 1999).
10. The number of countries with which China had diplomatic relations increased from 50 prior
to the Cultural Revolution to nearly 100 by the end of 1974; 18 countries, including Japan,
established diplomatic relations with China in 1972 alone. See, Mark, Chi-Kwan. China and
the World Wince 1945: An International History (New York: Routledge, 2012): 84.
11. Chuguo canguan kaocha baogao: yingguo, ruidian, jianada, meiguo jisuan jishu qingkuang
[Overseas Study Tour Report: Overview of Computing Technology in the United Kingdom,
Sweden, Canada, and the United States] no. 10 (Beijing: Zhongguo kexue jishu qingbao
yanjiusuo, April 1973); Chuguo canguan kaocha baogao: riben tielu lieche bianzu zidonghua jishu
[Overseas Study Tour Report: Japanese Railway Train Grouping Automation Technology], no.
13 (Beiing: Kexue jishu wenxian chubanshe, 1977). Reports on file with the author.
12. In 1978 alone, 21 Chinese delegations led by 13 vice premiers and National People’s Congress
vice chairmen visited 51 countries. See, Teiwes and Sun, “China’s New Economic Policy
under Hua Guofeng: Party Consensus and Party Myths,” 14.
13. For example, in 1978 the United Kingdom pledged to place hundreds of Chinese students
in British universities, dispatch British lecturers in science and technology, provide materials
on management science, and establish an English Language Institute, among other activities,
United Kingdom Department of Education and Science internal document, September 13,
1978, British Archives. Document on file with the author.
14. Saburo Ōkita and Masao Sakisaka from Japan and Armin Gutowski of West Germany served
as economic advisors to the State Council.
15. Robert L. Suettinger, Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of US-China Relations 1989–2000,
(Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004).
16. Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of

Wendy Leutert

Modern China; Jacobson and Oksenberg, China’s Participation in the IMF, the World Bank,
and GATT: Toward a Global Economic Order.
17. This concept affirmed that diverse economic elements could co-exist while simultaneously
upholding the continued dominance of state ownership. Jiang Zemin, Report to the National
Party Congress, October 12, 1992.
18. For example, the Development and Research Center (DRC) of the State Council has built
and maintained a working relationship with the World Bank since the 1980s, despite
domestic criticism, in important part because the Bank provided resources and expertise to
support the DRC’s research on the Chinese economy.
19. For example, Chinese officials educated in the United States and who speak English are better
positioned to engage with people and ideas from the United States, and to subsequently
incorporate them into domestic policymaking.
20. Huanmin Ling, “Intellectual Responses to China’s Economic Reform,” Asian Survey, 28:5
(1988): 542.
21. 习仲勋 [Xi Zhongxun]. Xi Zhongxun zai quanguo waiguo zhuanjia zhaodai gongzuo huiyi
shang de zhishi, June 28, 1956, cited in Joseph Torigian, unpublished manuscript shared by
author (2021).
22. The State Economic Commission, established in 1952 under the authority of the State
Council, was responsible for overall long-term economic planning.
23. 史经 [Shi Jing] and 宫叶 [Gong Ye],《资本主义工业托拉斯若干公司情况介绍
[Introduction to the Circumstances of Several Capitalist Industrial Corporate Trusts],
(Beijing: Zhongguo gongye chubanshe, 1964).
24. Chen Li, China’s Centralized Industrial Order: Industrial Reform and the Rise of Centrally
Controlled Big Business, (New York: Routledge, 2015): 47.
25. NEC Corporation was originally known as Nippon Electric Company, Limited; the company
was renamed NEC Corporation in April 1983. NEC, “Corporate Profile: History,” https://
26. 国家国有资产管理局 [National State-Owned Assets Administration Bureau]. 《日
本企业集团 与国有资产管理》 [Japanese Enterprise Groups and State-Owned Asset
Management] (Beijing: Jingji kexue chubanshe, 1993): 36–37.
27. Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s
Extraordinary Rise, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
28. Temasek was established in 1974 under the authority of the Ministry of Finance to manage a
portfolio of state-owned enterprises with the aim of improving their financial performance.
29. Deng Feng, “Indigenous Evolution of SOE Regulation” in Benjamin L. Liebman and Curtis
J. Milhaupt, eds., Regulating the Visible Hand?: The Institutional Implications of Chinese State
Capitalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015): 13.
30. SASAC, Li rongrong jiu guozi jianguan gongzuo he yangqi gaige fazhan qingkuang da jizhe wen
[Li Rongrong Answered Reporters’ Questions on State-Owned Assets Supervision and the
Reform and Development of State-Owned Enterprises], December 19, 2006.
31. Wei Jie Nicholas Ng, “Comparative Corporate Governance: Why Singapore’s Temasek Model
Is Not Replicable in China,” New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, 51
(2018): 211–249. Recent developments illustrate state-owned enterprises’ strategic functions.

Policy Collaging: Transnationalizing Analysis of Chinese Policymaking

For instance, Chinese leaders halted 2015 stock market volatility in part by ordering state-
owned enterprises not to sell shares for six months. Beginning in 2019, Beijing ordered state-
owned enterprises to promote stability following protests in Hong Kong by increasing their
investments and control of assets. Most recently, the Chinese government has mobilized state-
owned enterprises to aid COVID-19 response and economic recovery. SASAC, Guoziwei caiqu
youli cuoshi weihu gupiao shichang wending [SASAC Takes Effective Measures to Safeguard
Stock Market Stability], 8 July 2015. Keith Zhai, “Exclusive: China Prods State Firms to Boost
Investment in Crisis-Hit Hong Kong—Sources,” Reuters, September 12, 2019.
32. Daniel Rosen, Wendy Leutert, and Shan Guo. “Missing Link: Corporate Governance in
China’s State Sector,” Asia Society (2018).
33. Interview with University of Tokyo scholar, Tokyo, June 2019.
34. Sebastian Heilmann, “From Local Experiments to National Policy: The Origins of China’s
Distinctive Policy Process,” The China Journal, 59 (2008): 1–30; Huang, Selling China:
Foreign Direct Investment During the Reform Era, (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2006); Franziska Barbara Keller, “Moving Beyond Factions: Using Social Network Analysis
to Uncover Patronage Networks among Chinese Elites,” Journal of East Asian Studies 16,
no. 1 (2016): 17–41; Pierre F. Landry, Decentralized Authoritarianism in China, (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2008); Hongbin Li and Li-An Zhou, “Political Turnover and
Economic Performance: The Incentive Role of Personnel Control in China,” Journal of Public
Economics, 89 (2005), 1743–62; Victor C. Shih, Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict
and Inflation, (New York: Cambridge University, 2008); Victor C. Shih, Christopher Adolph,
and Mingxing Liu, “Getting Ahead in the Communist Party: Explaining the Advancement of
Central Committee Members in China,” American Political Science Review, 106, no. 1 (2012):
166–187; Susan L. Shirk, The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China (Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press, 1993); Hongbin Cai and Daniel Treisman, “Did Government
Decentralization Cause China’s Economic Miracle?” World Politics 58, no. 4 (2006): 505–535.
35. Margaret M. Pearson, “The Business of Governing Business in China: Institutions and
Norms of the Emerging Regulatory State,” World Politics 57:2 (2005): 296–322; Yeling
Tan, “Disaggregating “China, Inc.”: The Hierarchical Politics of WTO Entry,” Comparative
Political Studies 53, no. 13 (2020): 2118–2152; Dali L. Yang, Remaking the Chinese
Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China, (Palo Alto, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2004).
36. Roselyn Hsueh, China’s Regulatory State: A New Strategy for Globalization, (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 2011).
37. Gabriella Montinola, Yingyi Qian, and Barry R. Weingast, “Federalism, Chinese Style: The
Political Basis for Economic Success in China,” World Politics 48:1 (1995): 50–81; Victor
Nee and Sonja Opper, Capitalism from Below: Markets and Institutional Change in China,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); Yingyi Qian and Chenggang Xu, “Why
China’s Economic Reforms Differ: The M-Form Hierarchy and Entry/Expansion of the
Non-State Sector,” Economics of Transition 1:2 (1993): 135–170; Chenggang Xu and Juzhong
Zhuang, “Why China Grew: The Role of Decentralization,” in Peter Boone, Stanislaw
Gomulka, and Richard Layard, eds., Emerging from Communism: Lessons from Russia, China,
and Eastern Europe, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998): 183–212.

Wendy Leutert

38. Halliday and Carruthers, “The Recursivity of Law: Global Norm Making And National
Lawmaking in the Globalization of Corporate Insolvency Regimes,” 1135–1202; Keck and
Sikkink, “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional Politics,” 89–101.
39. Alastair Iain Johnston, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000, (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
40. Johnston 2008 describes three micro-processes of socialization in international organizations
that can affect state behavior: policy mimicking, social influence, and persuasion.
41. Sebastian Heilmann and Nicole Schulte-Kulkmann, “The Limits of Policy Diffusion:
Introducing International Norms of Anti-Money Laundering into China’s Legal
System,” Governance 24:4 (2011): 639–664.
42. Imposition may occur directly, for example when international bodies make cooperation
with non-members conditional on their acceptance of previously-defined regulatory
standards. It may also occur indirectly, for instance if an outside state is under pressure to
adopt a regulatory consensus that an international body or a group of states has established.
See, Heilmann and Schulte-Kulkmann, “The Limits of Policy Diffusion: Introducing
International Norms of Anti-Money Laundering into China’s Legal System,” 646.
43. Kristen Looney, Mobilizing for Development: The Modernization of Rural East Asia, (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).
44. Tiejun Cheng and Mark Selden, “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou
System,” The China Quarterly 139 (1994): 644–668.
45. Zhenbin Zuo, “Governance by Algorithm: China’s Social Credit System,” working paper
(2020), available at
GovernancebyAlgorithm_CERF_Zhenbin6.16.2020.pdf, 28.
46. Donald C. Clarke, “Lost in Translation? Corporate Legal Transplants in China,” George
Washington University Law Faculty Publications and Other Works, no. 1068. (2006).
47. When the State Council was drafting the 2015 National Security Law, it convened a closed-
door workshop featuring presentations by legal experts from the United States and Europe.
Interview with retreat participant, Beijing, January 2019.
48. These efforts originated in WFP and Alibaba’s collaboration in 2017 on a project helping
farmers in Anhui province to access real-time information about market prices for their
agricultural produce. World Food Programme, “WFP and Alibaba Enter Strategic
Partnership to Support UN Sustainable Development Goal of a World with Zero Hunger,”
November 5, 2018.
49. John H.S. Åberg and Derick Becker, “China as Exemplar: Justin Lin, New Structural
Economics, and the Unorthodox Orthodoxy of the China Model,” Politics & Policy 48:5
(2020): 815–835.; Phoenix Finance, “Da shidai chuangzao chu de hen lihai de renwu” [A Very
Powerful Character Created in the Great Era], December 20, 2018.
50. Tom Fairless and Stella Yifan Xie, “Western Economies Embrace State Intervention,
Emulating Asia,” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2020.
51. Kristen Hopewell, “Power Transitions and Global Trade Governance: The Impact of a Rising
China on the Export Credit Regime,” Regulation & Governance (2019).
52. Edward S. Steinfeld, Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West, (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2010).


China’s Green Mercantilism

and Environmental
Governance: A New Belt and
Road to the Global South?

Jessica C. Liao is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and

Assistant Professor of Political Science at North Carolina
State University.
Jessica C. Liao

This report examines an important but often neglected issue, namely, the en-
vironmental impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the Global
South and China’s new efforts to build a BRI-centric sustainable development
regime. Why is China now focused on a “green BRI?” What are the related
policy actions? What challenges does China face in its “green BRI” efforts?
This research argues that China’s green agenda and initiatives are not just a re-
sponse to external criticism on BRI’s negative environmental impact. Rather,
it represents the rise of China’s green mercantilism, namely, using state capital
to build a BRI-centric coalition around the issue of sustainable development
in the Global South. The Global South has long been an important foreign
policy priority for China, and as this research will show, many “green BRI”
initiatives seek to woo countries in this region. However, Beijing’s green mer-
cantilism prioritizes China’s national economic and political interests over en-
vironmental benefits. China has thus been ineffective in fostering sustainable
development in the Global South and in achieving its stated goal of green-
ing BRI. Environmental governance has often been put on the backburner of
BRI’s new initiatives, especially at the implementation level.

Policy recommendations:
● U.S. policy should induce China to play a “race to the top” game.

● The United States should highlight inadequate environmental protection

standards in China’s foreign economic policies in general. Within
BRI projects in particular, Washington should urge China to bring its
governance framework in line with international standards, such as
those used by OECD export credit agencies or International Finance
Corporation. The United States should specifically pressure China
to phase out its financing of overseas coal-fired power plants, a vague
promise that Chinese President Xi Jinping made but never came followed
through on.1 To be successful, it is critical to build a results oriented
dialogue platform with a variety of Chinese offices and agencies, which is
currently lacking.

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

● The United States needs to work together with other creditor countries
and transnational environmental groups to engage and urge China
to adopt OECD Common Approaches for its export credit agencies’
environmental and social due diligence standards. To add pressure
on Chinese policy banks, the United States should also ensure other
OECD countries, Japan and South Korea in particular, follow OECD
rules that restrict export financing for coal-fired power projects. Global
environmental governance on export credits would be ineffective, if not
impossible, absent China’s participation.

● The United States should provide tangible support for countries in

the Global South to create sustainable development incentives. Such
support should be comprehensive, covering both policy and industrial
level technical assistance, and cater to the needs of government and
civil society in both financial and non-financial forms. To this end,
cooperation with other creditor countries, as well as China, is necessary.

Jessica C. Liao

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has morphed into China’s premier foreign
policy framework, from its inauguration in 2013 to the adoption of BRI into
the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017. During this pe-
riod, the geographic and financial scope of Chinese overseas infrastructure
development has rapidly expanded. Unsurprisingly, BRI has been among the
most discussed topics in the field of international relations (IR), particularly
in light of rising competition between China and the United States. BRI has
thus spurred widespread debate among international relations scholars and
policymakers alike, whose focus has been predominantly on its geopolitical
motivations and implications.
While BRI’s strategic significance remains hotly debated, this research
looks at an important but often neglected issue, namely, BRI’s environmental
impact on the Global South and China’s new efforts to build a BRI-centric
sustainable development regime. Over the past two decades, China has risen
rapidly in the realm of development finance, especially since BRI’s launch in
2013. According to Boston University’s Global Development Policy (GDP)
Center, from 2009 to 2019 Chinese policy banks have extended around $462
billion in development finance, more than half of which were announced
after 2013.2 The majority of these loans were for infrastructure construction
projects in BRI-affiliated countries in the Global South. However, as China’s
development footprint expanded, the BRI’s environmental impact also in-
tensified. For example, the GDP Center estimated that by the end of 2019,
China-financed fossil fuel power plants were responsible for approximately
314 million tons (Mt) of carbon emissions per year, accounting for about 3.5
percent of the world’s annual carbon emission excluding China. Recent re-
search also shows that the rise of large-scale dams in the greater Mekong sub-
region—driven largely by Chinese capital—came with major ecological and
socioeconomic costs, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to food insecu-
rity and dislocation.3 In addition to large energy projects, environmental con-
cerns related to BRI transportation sector projects were so massive that several
researchers warned they might outweigh the project’s economic benefits for
host countries.4
BRI’s environmental impact has provoked increased criticism and concerns
from host countries and the international community, which has become an

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

important backdrop in China’s recent push for a BRI-centric environmental

governance regime. As illustrated by the Belt and Road Forums (BRFs) in
2017 and 2019, Beijing made environmental protection and sustainable devel-
opment a top agenda item and launched a variety of “green” initiatives, includ-
ing many high profile financial plans and projects endorsed by multilateral
organizations. Nevertheless, current debates have not adequately captured the
implications and impact that China’s push for a green BRI will have on the
Global South. It remains unclear why “green” development has become BRI’s
new focus. What policy actions support this initiative? What does China-led
multilateralism in sustainable development look like? What challenges does
China face in greening BRI?
This research argues that the emergence of BRI’s “green” agenda and initia-
tives were not just a response to external criticism. Rather, it represents the
rise of China’s green mercantilism, namely, using state capital to build a BRI-
centric sustainable development coalition in the Global South. The People’s
Republic of China (PRC) has taken the Global South as a foreign policy prior-
ity throughout its history, and, as this research will show, many of BRI’s green
initiatives are aimed at wooing countries in this region. However, Beijing’s
green mercantilism prioritizes China’s national economic and political in-
terests over environmental benefits. China, therefore, has failed to achieve its
sustainable development in the Global South, nor has it greened BRI. In fact,
China has often deprioritized environmental governance in its “green BRI”
initiatives, especially at the implementation level.
This report has five parts. It starts with the general context of China’s green
mercantilism, explaining how economic and political interests gave rise to a
new BRI agenda centered on environmental protection and sustainable de-
velopment. The second part provides an overview of BRI’s “green” discourse,
policy documents, and policy actions from its inauguration to the present. It
illustrates how China’s green mercantilism shaped BRI’s new agenda, specifi-
cally through three economic policy instruments: “green” foreign aid, “green”
financial systems, and “green” trade and eco-friendly infrastructure. The fol-
lowing sections examine in detail these three policy instruments, particularly
their implementation, accomplishments, and challenges in achieving BRI’s
stated goal to bring sustainable development to the Global South. Through an
examination of quantitative data, the report also shows that in spite of increas-

Jessica C. Liao

ing efforts to “green” BRI, China-backed infrastructure development remains

a major source of environmental concern in the Global South. The report con-
cludes with a discussion of BRI’s recent developments following the COVID-
19 pandemic outbreak, and policy implications for the United States.

Mercantilism and the Rise of Green BRI: The Context

The emergence of China’s green BRI agenda requires understanding of the
internal and external dynamics driving Beijing’s decision-making. Since
President Xi unveiled the concept of BRI in 2013 and called for a massive push
on infrastructure projects in developing countries, China’s overseas invest-
ments have become the increasing target of criticism. This criticism intensified
within environmental policy and advocacy circles across the world following
the announcement of a series of BRI flagship projects, such as large-scale coal-
fired power plants, hydropower plants, and other transportation projects.5
Notably, foreign critics found similar complaints in China, where civil society
groups, academia and think tanks, and environmental policy groups have rec-
ognized the environmental repercussions of China’s own infrastructure push
and the risk that BRI might impede China’s broader national interests.6
Such voices are not coincidental. They reflect the evolution of domestic
forces pushing China’s own policy towards sustainable development. This
push began after decades of rapid industrialization took a toll on the country’s
ecosystem and public health, with a rising middle class forcing the Chinese
leadership to recognize that they had to adjust their policy objectives in order
to maintain governing legitimacy. Since the 11th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2006–
2010), the ideal of “ecological modernization” and “ecological civilization” has
steadily ascended to one of the PRC’s policy priorities. This new policy focus
not only espoused the notion of sustainable development, but also reaffirmed
the Chinese government’s position atop the economy’s commanding heights
where it set agendas and made decisions in pursuit of a more sustainable form
of development.7 Over the past decade, the Chinese government has rolled out
a variety of policies and regulations to promote a state-led green capitalism,
from direct and indirect financial support for clean industries to heightened
environmental standards to phase out polluting industries. While risks and
challenges remain, China has made remarkable achievements, particularly in

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

slowing the growth of carbon emissions and in rapidly building the world’s
largest renewable energy sector. China’s green movement has attracted much
research, with some naming it “authoritarian environmentalism,”8 while oth-
ers characterizes it as “new developmentalism.”9
This research shows, however, that the concept of mercantilism is critical
in understanding the importance of BRI to China’s green policy movement.
In spite of the diverse interpretation of this ancient economic idea, mercantil-
ism at its core promotes a strong state that uses intervening policy to build a
rich nation. The contemporary liberalized global economy, however, can place
significant limits on state-led policy intervention.10 Nevertheless, mercantil-
ism continues to influence governments in their efforts to wield foreign trade
and investment policy as tools in achieving their national goals. China’s 21st
century state-led development strategy is emblematic of such practices.11
China’s interpretation of “ecological civilization” is steeped in mercantil-
ism, with the PRC leadership seeking to turn their country into not only a
green economy but also the world’s top exporter of environmental prod-
ucts and technology. To be clear, mercantilist influence does not perme-
ate the Chinese state evenly. Agencies in charge of trade and industrial
promotion, such as the National Development and Reform Commission
(NDRC), State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission
(SASAC), the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Energy
Administration (NEA), tend to prioritize mercantilist ideas more than agen-
cies in charge of environmental affairs. However, these agencies are powerful
and in many cases make final decisions on rules regarding Chinese firms’ over-
seas activities.
Their influence—and mercantilist zeal—is on a full display in the 13th
FYP (2016–2020), in which environmental, renewable, and energy efficient
industries made up a big part of the so-called “strategic emerging industries.”
Following President Xi’s pledge to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2060,
the recently released 14th FYP continued to prioritize the development of
“green” industries.12 Although from China’s perspective, “green mercantil-
ism” could be mutually beneficial or promote “win-win,” the Achilles’ heel
is its limitation in restricting China’s foreign economic interests. As such, all
these policy plans stress the need of greater financial and trade mobilization
between China and the world not merely to gain foreign capital in ­building

Jessica C. Liao

China into a green economy. Their goal is also to help upgrade Chinese in-
dustries—both clean and dirty—through expanding to overseas markets,
which makes BRI essential.
Economic interests are not the sole impetus of China’s green mercantilism.
As great power status becomes China’s new foreign policy ambition, environ-
mental diplomacy is of significant importance.13 For a long time, prioritiza-
tion of economic development kept China— the world’s largest greenhouse
emitter—at the periphery of global environmental governance. Over the past
decade, however, with its accomplishments in environmental protection,
China has become active in pursuing leadership roles at global environmental
fora, as exemplified by its participation in the Group of 20 (G20) Summits
and the United Nations Climate Change Conferences over the past decade.
Importantly, environmental diplomacy has also become a new area for
China’s promotion of “soft power” in the global south, a region in which
China has long identified with.14 As early as 2010, China began promoting en-
vironmental diplomacy in the global south through its creation of China-led
regional environmental forums, such as the China-Arab States Environmental
Cooperation Forum and the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation
Forum. Since BRI’s launch and against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal from
the Paris Agreement and Green Climate Fund, China became even more ac-
tive in seeking environmental leadership through expansion of renewable en-
ergy installation and Xi’s carbon neutrality pledge before the United Nations
General Assembly.15 In this sense, promotion of green BRI is critical to China’s
leadership in global environmental governance and its relationships with the
global south as well as its efforts to compete with the United States in shaping
the future of global governance.

Green BRI to Lead the Global South:

An Overview of Policy Discourses and Actions
China has increasingly focused on using state-backed capital to build a BRI-
centric sustainable development coalition in the global south. To woo coun-
tries in the region into this coalition, China deploys three types of economic
policy instruments, namely, “green” foreign aid, “green” financial systems, and
“green” trade and infrastructure investments.

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

These policy instruments as a whole have developed along with BRI’s ever-
expanding “green” discourses and policy plans. For starters, President Xi’s
BRI inaugural speech addressed the importance of ecological protection.16
The first BRI action plan published by the National Development and Reform
Commission (NDRC) also made sustainable development part of its policy
rationale.17 In 2016, China made the high-profile pledge of a 20-billion-yuan
($3.1 billion) South-South Climate Change Fund to the United Nations, sig-
naling its intent to building global common goods.
The “green” theme emerged as a key part of President Xi’s keynote speech
at the 1st Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2017, where he called for ‘a new vi-
sion of green development.’18 The same year, the NDRC issued its Guidance
on Promoting a Green Belt and Road (Green BRI Guidance thereafter) as
the first document stating BRI’s mission in environmental promotion. The
Green BRI Guidance ensured Green BRI’s commercial and diplomatic ori-
entation, stipulating that the policy’s primary goals included “eco-friendly
infrastructure development, green trade & trade of sustainable produc-
tion and consumption, green finance, eco-environmental protection and
risk management projects, and people-to-people bonds.” The Ministry of
Environmental Protection (then the Ministry of Ecology and Environment,
or MEE) also issued the Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental
Cooperation Plan (BREECP), specifying dozens of initiatives and planned
initiatives to implement the Green BRI Guidance.19 In addition, NDRC, to-
gether with other agencies, also issued various new policies and correspond-
ing initiatives, as summarized in Table 1.
A series of BRI-themed green action plans and initiatives emerged. They
were increasingly multilateral, comprising a variety of environmental policy
coordinating mechanisms between China and BRI countries. As Table 1
shows, these initiatives called “green” foreign aid, “green” financial systems,
and “green” trade and infrastructure investments or some combination
thereof. The following sections will analyze these three policy instruments
and seek to answer two important questions: How did mercantilism influ-
ence these initiatives? How effective have these initiatives been in “green-
ing” BRI projects?

Jessica C. Liao

TABLE 1. Green BRI initiatives

Three economic policy instruments

Green foreign aid:

• South-South Climate Change Fund (2015)
• South-South Cooperation Fund (2016)
• Lancang-Mekong Environmental Cooperation Center/Green
Development Funds (2015/2018)
• China-ASEAN Demonstration Centers for
• Environmental Protection Technology and Industrial Cooperation and
Exchanges (2016)
• China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Center/Green Development
Fund (2017/2018)
• Silk Road Green Envoy Program (2017)
• BRI South-South Cooperation Initiative on Climate Change/Training
for Tackling Climate Change (2017)
• BRI International Green Development Coalition (2019)
• BRI Green Lighting Initiative (2019)
• BRI Green Cooling Initiative (2019)
• BRI Sustainable Cities Alliance (2019)
• BRI Environmental Technology Exchange and Transfer Center (2019)
Green financial systems:
• Green Silk Road Fund (2015)
• BRI Green Finance Index (2017)
• China Green Finance Committee (2017)
• Green Investment Principles for Belt and Road Development (2019)
• Study of Belt and Road Green Development Fund (2019)

Green trade and infrastructure investments:

• BRI Green Supply Chain Program (2015)
• Hazardous Waste Management and Import and Export Regulation
Cooperation (2017)
• BRI Environmental Big Data Platform (2017)
• Eco-Label Mutual Recognition (2017)
• Initiative on Corporate Environmental Responsibility Fulfillment for
Building the Green Belt and Road (2017)
• Industrial Park Sewage Treatment Demonstration (2017)
• Study on Green Interconnection (2017)
• BRI Green Going-Out Initiative (2019)

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

Official documents related to Green BRI

BRI documents:
• Guidance on Promoting a Green Belt and Road (2017)
• Vision For Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road
Initiative (2017)
• The Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation
Plan (2017)
• Vision and Actions on Agriculture Cooperation in Jointly Building Silk
Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (2017)
• Vision and Actions on Energy Cooperation In Jointly Building Silk
Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (2017)

Other documents on Chinese outbound investments and other

economic activities:
• A Guide On Sustainable Overseas Forests Management and
Utilization by Chinese Enterprises (2009)
• Green Credit Guidelines (2012)
• Guidelines On Environmental Protection For Overseas Investment
And Cooperation (2013)
• Guidelines For Establishing the Green Financial System (2016)
• Regulations On Outbound Investment and Business Activities of
Private Enterprises (2017)
• China Banking Regulatory Commission On the Standardization Of
Banking Service Enterprises Going Abroad: Guide to Strengthening
Risk Prevention And Control (2017)
• Measures For the Management of Outbound Investment
Regulations (2017)

Jessica C. Liao

Green Foreign Aid with Chinese Characteristics

Foreign aid has been China’s key policy instrument in its attempt to lead a
BRI-centric environmental coalition. As mentioned earlier, China launched
the South-South Climate Change Fund in 2016, pledging to build ten low-
carbon demonstration projects, 100 climate change adaptation and mitiga-
tion projects, and 1,000 training places in developing nations (the “10-100-
1000” plan). Other similar financial arrangements included another $2
billion for South-South Cooperation announced at the 2016 United Nations
Development Summit to meet the post-2015 Development Agenda. China-led
regional environmental forums, such as the Lancang-Mekong Environmental
Cooperation Center and China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Center,
also provided grants for research and capacity building training. The 2017
BREECP reiterated the importance of “green foreign aid” programs and out-
lined foreign aid expansion plans in “greening” BRI. The 2018 China-Africa
summit confirmed this policy line, as President Xi expanded China’s aid com-
mitment to Africa, including 50 projects on green development and environ-
mental protection.20
It is unclear how much China’s pledge of “green” foreign aid has material-
ized. Nevertheless, with the backing of the expansive funding, China-led
environmental coalitions expanded rapidly through both broadening the
existing China-led environmental forums and creating new ones to foster
broader and deeper policy exchange and coordination. In 2015 for exam-
ple, China founded the China-ASEAN Partnership on Eco-friendly Cities.
Since 2017, BRI-affiliated environmental forums flourished with various
types of environmental stakeholders participating on issues ranged from
policy and standards coordination to nuclear and radiation safety manage-
ment. Among issues discussed, the most prominent BRI International Green
Development Coalition, a coalition aiming to promote dialogues and har-
monize environmental rules for BRI projects, reportedly has more than 130
participating organizations from 60 countries and environmental ministries
from 25 BRI countries—almost entirely from the Global South—to discuss
ten environmental topics. 21 China’s “green” foreign aid also promotes the
so-called “people-to-people bonds” activities such as environment-related
training, exchanges, and visits. As a major initiative of this sort, the Green
Silk Road Envoys Program begun in 2011, expanded in 2017, and claims to

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

have provided over 2,000 environmental training sessions for government

officials and private citizens from BRI countries. 22 Notably, the United
Nations endorsed and jointly administered many of BRI-theme multilateral
sustainable initiatives, boosting the profile of China-led sustainable devel-
opment coalition in the Global South.
While multilateral cooperation is essential for environmental protection,
how China’s green foreign aid has been put in practice and whether it has
achieved its stated goal is questionable. First, BRI’s cooperation mechanisms
emphasize consensus-building and diplomatic functions more than making sub-
stantial policy changes, which was difficult given the diverse interests between
the participant states.23 As many BRI countries lack policy frameworks to facili-
tate and incentivize renewable or sustainable projects, green development is dif-
ficult in practice. As such, the BRI International Green Development Coalition
has moved slowly since its inauguration and yielded little impact on the policy
level. Further, a consensus-based approach is also inefficient in engaging coun-
tries disinterested, if not reluctant, to discuss environmental issues; many BRI
countries that were also top greenhouse gas emitters, such as Indonesia, South
Africa, and Turkey, were not part of this coalition
The major challenge is intrinsic to China’s mercantilist take on “green” for-
eign aid. According to a Beijing-based observer, Chinese-content procurement
requirement impose many restrictions on Chinese foreign aid, leading to slow
implementation of the South-South Climate Change Fund and poor quality
projects.24 Additionally, conflicts between commercial, environmental, and
foreign affair ministries over the goals and priorities of the Fund, coupled
with coordinating problems between them, have also obstructed the quality
of those projects. While the recent reorganization of MEE and creation of the
China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) to manage
“green foreign aid” is a promising change, whether these organizations could
remedy pressing problems remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, current studies show that so far, China’s mercantilist in-
terests have a diminishing effect on its intent to help with BRI countries’
environmental protection and sustainable development. For example, sev-
eral researchers observed that China’s climate mitigation demonstration
projects in Africa function like a sales demonstration, with staff emphasiz-
ing the productivity improvements in Chinese-manufactured data services,

Jessica C. Liao

biotechnology, agricultural machinery, and related business facilitation ser-

vices. 25 Tyler Harlan made similar observations on China-led workshops on
small hydropower projects, which he argued facilitated medium- and large-
scale hydropower investments in BRI countries. 26 He also observed that the
majority of China’s “green foreign aid” was not sustainable for development
projects, but rather environmental mitigation projects, which are often se-
lectively enforced in developing countries and end up more as “greenwash-
ing.” 27 Still others observe that surveillance systems, environmental law en-
forcement training, and cultural exchanges or similar programs, accounted
for a substantial part of China’s environmental aid donation and Silk Road
Envoy Program for BRI countries. 28 In this view, Chinese green foreign aid
also helps promote so-called “coercive environmentalism.”
Importantly, regardless of high-profile pledges, the scale of China’s green
foreign aid remains modest. According to China’s latest foreign aid white
paper, in terms of project counts, climate change programs accounted for
merely three percent of Chinese aid programs from 2013–2018.29 It is also
difficult to tell the environmental scores of the rest of Chinese foreign aid
programs based on the information released in the white paper. Granted,
while not directly intended for environmental governance, China is the
lead contributor to two new multilateral development banks, the Asian
Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank
(NDB). Since the outset, the two banks have collaborated with established
development banks in promoting sustainable and eco-friendly development
projects. Still, according to an Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and
Oxford Economics study, the two banks, together with other multilateral
development banks, account for 0.6 percent of BRI projects.30 In this sense,
the impact of China’s foreign aid on BRI countries, regardless of whether it
is “green” or not, is negligible compared to that of development funds from
China’s financial institutions.

China’s Green(ish) Financial System

The same ICBC and Oxford Economic study found that up to the end of 2017,
Chinese firms and financial institutions had financed 86 percent of BRI’s
projects. Financial institutions and the two-decade long campaign known as

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

Go Out—BRI’s predecessor policy initiative—are the backbone of China’s

state-led economy in promoting China’s exports, outbound investments, and
resource acquisitions. Greening the financial system is thus China’s key strat-
egy to “green” BRI.
The green movement of China’s financial system can be seen through regu-
latory changes at two levels. At the firm level, since the Go Out era, Chinese
ministries and commissions have issued numerous documents regulating vari-
ous aspects of outbound investments and other economic activities. Among
them, the Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and
Cooperation (2013), jointly issued by the MEP and MOFCOM, is the most
comprehensive in setting environmental rules for Chinese firms operating
overseas, including requirements to perform socio-environmental impact
assessments to gain Chinese bank loans. Additionally, the NDRC issued
Administrative Measures on Overseas Investments (2017), requiring firms to
disclose the environmental record of their overseas activities. These docu-
ments provide a primary framework for Chinese banks’ environmental pro-
tection practices.
At the financial institution level, China has embarked on a movement
to build a green credit system in the early 2010s. From the China Banking
Regulatory Commission’s (CBRC) issuance of Green Credit Guidelines
(2012) to Key Indicators of Green Credit Performance (2014), these documents
construct various guidelines, categories, and indicators in measuring Chinese
banks’ green scores in the hope of directing them from “dirty” to “clean” lend-
ing. While Chinese banks’ domestic portfolios remain the focus, these docu-
ments, and the indicators disclosed, also include their overseas portfolios as
part of the assessment. Furthermore, in 2016 the People’s Bank of People’s
Bank of China adopted the Guidelines of Establishing a Green Financial
System, which not only advances green credit requirements but also expands
the “green” movement into bonds, insurance, and pension markets. Since
their first issuance in 2016, China’s “green bonds” in particular saw exponen-
tial growth, with an estimated value of $42.8 billion in 2018.31 Notably, more
than one fifth of Chinese green bonds were issued offshored, which requires
meeting international green standards.
The green finance movement has also shaped BRI’s green initiatives. China
first introduced its green finance policy at the G20 Summit in 2016. A year

Jessica C. Liao

later at the first BRF, China pledged to bring green finance to BRI countries
and launched the Green Finance Index to promote transparency in BRI proj-
ects’ environmental record. At the 2nd BRF the Green Finance Committee of
China Society of Finance and Banking, the City of London Corporation, and
27 financial institutions both Chinese and multinational, signed the Green
Investment Principles (GIP), vowing to improve their environmental and
social risk management and to promote green investments in BRI countries.
Likewise, dozens of Chinese banks sought to expand partnerships with west-
ern banks and organizations to uphold international standards on environ-
mental protection with a goal to build co-financing mechanisms. For example,
the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim China) signed a memorandum of
understanding (MoU) with Mizuho Bank and Standard Chartered Bank on
third-party market cooperation, and separate MOU with the United Nations
Industrial Development Organization to enhance cooperation on sustainable
industrial development in BRI countries.
In spite of regulatory changes at home and multilateral activities abroad,
there are many reasons to question the efficacy of China’s green efforts. The pri-
mary reason is the weakness of China’s regulatory bodies, which are still rooted
in a mercantilist stance. At the firm level, as Kelly Gallagher and Qi Qi observed,
current Chinese regulation, in spite of heightened environmental standards,
is mostly non-mandatory, and only in rare cases does the government impose
compulsory restrictions on firms’ overseas activities.32 For example, MEP’s 2013
Guidelines recommends firms to adopt best practices for environmental impact
assessment (EIA), namely, the Equator Principles. In fact, the Guidelines dis-
played MEP’s failed attempt in making the EIA best practice mandatory due
to opposition from pro-export promotion MOFCOM.33 While NDRC’s 2017
measures helped boost MEP’s regulatory strength, it remained in a weak posi-
tion to coordinate with other agencies on implementing its environmental rules
overseas. Importantly, SASAC, which supervises Chinese state-owned enter-
prises, i.e. heavyweight BRI implementers, shared MOFCOM’s mercantilist
priorities. SASAC’s performance evaluation mechanism remains mainly profit-
oriented and lack components for environment, social and governance assess-
ments.34 At the end of 2020, the most explicit environmental requirement for
Chinese firms remains compliance with host country rules, which is commonly
seen as a low bar in ensuring the environmental standard of BRI projects.35 As

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

such, some studies found that Chinese firms investing overseas continue to
adopt the lowest environmental standard but still receive state-backed loans.36
China’s efforts to “green” financial institutions also began with a mercan-
tilist motivation, as Chinese regulators sought to raise “green” foreign capital
in a market that increasingly demands reporting on environmental, social,
governance practices (ESG). The new financial guidelines are thus critical for
China’s development in green industries, both at home and abroad. Yet, the
same mercantilist motivation also makes China reluctant to phase out lend-
ing for “un-green” projects. Thus, the current guidelines, even though with
increased regulatory strengthening, mainly call upon Chinese banks’ volun-
tary actions. Procedures to implement these guidelines and mechanisms to
supervise banks and their information disclosure also remain ambiguous.
Moreover, the above-stated green financial rules from the Chinese bank regu-
lators do not apply to two policy banks, Exim China and China Development
Bank (CDB), which are under the direct supervision of the State Council in
fulfilling national policies such as BRI. While being de facto BRI pillars, both
banks have never disclosed their EIA and ESG guidelines and record.
Importantly, China’s definition of “green”—while varying somehow
among different Chinese administrative authorities—is peculiar. It generally
refers to “less dirty.” For example, large-scaled hydropower, natural gas, and
‘clean’ coal technology, which are not included into the “green” category by
most international financiers, are classified into China’s “green” credit catego-
ries.37 Strikingly, nuclear energy also falls into the scope of BRI’s renewable
energy. Unsurprisingly, studies found that green credit guidelines have yet
had clear effect on the major Chinese banks’ environmental record either at
home or abroad. Others also found that the guidelines remain ambivalent on
measures on banks’ overseas portfolios and how they are evaluated as part of
these banks’ “green” scores.38 Similarly, hydropower and “clean” coal develop-
ment has been lumped into China’s onshore green bonds. It was only after
the announcement of China’s carbon neutrality by 2060 in September 2020
that “clean” coal was removed from China’s green bond basket. According to
a local expert, how far this change should apply to other part of the finan-
cial system has been highly contested between different ministries.39 In sum,
mercantilism continues to obstruct China’s political will in conducting green
finance policy and makes BRI at best “greenish.”

Jessica C. Liao

Green Trade and Infrastructure Investments:

Touting Green and Building Dirty
Green trade promotion has been touted as one of BRI’s primary objectives.
While the range of “green” trade varies widely, from trade in environmental
products and services related to air and water pollution control to hazardous
waste management and disposal, according to the BREECP, promotion of re-
newable energy is of particular importance in helping BRI countries develop
low carbon and climate resilience. The joint communique of the 2nd BRF re-
affirmed this focus with a vow to support “global access to affordable, clean,
renewable and sustainable energy for all.”40
China has since launched many initiatives for harmonizing trade policy
with BRI countries via BRI-themed multilateral forums. For example, in
collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Programme, China
launched green lighting and cooling systems, built sustainable cities alliances,
and mentioned earlier, and formed mechanism in promoting, for example,
eco-label mutual recognition, nuclear and radiation safety management, and
export regulation cooperation. In the run-up to the two BRFs, many Chinese
industries also released new environmental or social responsibility guidelines.
These initiatives, however, focus on facilitation and management of en-
vironment-related trade and investment in BRI countries rather than ad-
vancing these countries’ environmental regulation frameworks. More im-
portantly, while the policy significance of the new initiatives remains too
early to tell, China’s infrastructure development in BRI countries has been
proven otherwise. According to the GDP Center’s latest estimate, CDB and
Exim China made approximately $462 billion worth of lending commit-
ments in 2008–2019.41 Of this lending, approximately two-thirds was made
after the launch of BRI in 2013 for constructing transportation, energy sup-
ply, and energy distribution infrastructure and Table 2 illustrates the proj-
ects being financed. Strikingly, Table 2 shows that among the 518 projects
with GDP validated physical locations, 124 are within national protected
areas, 261 are within critical habitats, 133 are within indigenous peoples’
land, and near 90 percent of them are located in developing countries in
Asia and Africa. Over a hundred of projects—mostly related to hydropower
development—in river basins in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America
overlap with multiple categories of sensitive territories. The GDP notes

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

TABLE 2. China-financed overseas projects: geospatial analysis of

biodiversity and indigenous lands

National Indigenous
Protected Critical Peoples’
Continent/Area Areas Habitats Lands
South America 6 17 7
Central America and
3 5 0
the Caribbean
North America 0 0 0
Europe 8 6 0
Africa 65 129 72
Asia and Pacific
42 104 54
Australia 0 0 0
Antarctica 0 0 0
Total: 124 261 133
Source: the Global Development Policy Center of Boston University (2020).

Chinese energy investments n the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 2013–2020

Investments in Million USD



20K Gas

10K Oil

% of Energy Investments

8.63% 10.61% 13.75% 15.54%

22.17% 23.53% 26.50%
80% 18.70% 23.08%
30.34% 23.27%
15.15% 17.57% 17.57%
60% 34.75%
9.80% 27.21% 20.54% 9.06% 23.75%
40% 38.09% 35.44%
15.59% 28.91% 31.81% 13.23%
18.81% 18.56% 46.32% 24.29% 16.87% 15.05% 19.13% 26.85%
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020

©2021 IIGF Green BRI Center, Data based on AEI and others

Jessica C. Liao

that this amount is an underestimate, as the two banks also earmarked ad-
ditional loans for oil, gas, and mining extraction, such as the $10 billion
Russia-China oil pipeline.
Other data also shows the ineffectiveness of its promotion in eco-friendly
energy infrastructure. According to the Beijing-based Green Belt and Road
Initiative Center, which triangulates various datasets on the subject from
2013 to 2020, the value of the announced Chinese energy projects in BRI
countries during this period was about $260 billion, of which coal power
sectors made up for 30 percent and oil and gas sectors make up 35 percent.
As shown in the figure above, Chinese investments in large-scaled fossil
fuel projects declined after 2017 following the launch of BRI’s green initia-
tives. Nevertheless, they remain a major part of China’s energy investment
in BRI countries. The data also shows that while BRI’s renewable portfolio
has grown significantly since 2017, it is driven largely by the rise of large-
scaled hydropower development. It is important to note that in the year of
2020, under the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, renewables accounted
for 58 percent of new BRI contract value, surpassing the fossil fuels for the
first time. However, the surge of renewables was mainly driven by hydro-
power sectors. At the same time, the share of coal sectors also increased,
compared to that in previous years. Hydropower and coal continued to be
the top two sectors of China’s energy investments in BRI. In short, whether
the pandemic might accelerate or stall the “greening” of BRI energy projects
remains unclear.
How to reconcile the contradiction between China’s push for a green BRI
and its investment record at the same time? The answer lies in the fact that a
mercantilist China on the one hand, is spearheading eco-friendly and renew-
able exports and foreign investments, yet, on the other, it remains reluctant to
close up regulatory loopholes and phase out environmentally detrimental ones
in order to maintain Chinese state-owned firms’ global foothold. Problems re-
lated to China’s foreign aid and financial system discussed above illustrate this
reluctance. Moreover, most of the above-mentioned initiatives remain unclear
in terms of their policy substance.42 As China’s financial system currently pro-
vides little real incentives for banks to support eco-friendly trade or renewable
investments, firms in this sector—usually smaller and private players—can-
not gain sufficient financial support to expand overseas. While a study group

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

on the Green Development Fund was announced at the 2nd BRF, it remains
far from unclear when this Fund would come to being.
The statistics shown above is also not a surprise considering two facts.
First, China is not part of the OECD, the key platform that sets interna-
tional rules for export credit agencies. Thus, Chinese policy banks, unlike its
OECD counterparts, need not to comply with the Common Approaches on
Environmental and Social Due Diligence. Similarly, none of the major BRI fi-
nanciers has adopted the Equator Principles and performance standards issued
by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group.
While the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) has adopted
the Principles as references for its operational guidelines, it has also supported
many fossil fuel projects on the BRI map. Second, China actually resisted
taking formal part into the 2015 OECD Agreement and Understanding on
Export Credit for Coal-fired Electricity Generation Projects, which would re-
strict China’s overseas coal power development.
Nevertheless, promising changes emerged recently. At the 2nd BRF in
2019, the BRI International Green Development Coalition announced the
plan to study a traffic light system, which restricts Chinese firms’ financing
access based on the environmental impact of industrial categories of invest-
ment projects. This initiative was in response to the call of many from within
Chinese ministries, think-tanks, and environmental groups, both in China
and abroad, to raise the environmental standard since the launch of BRI. Then
came the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, which exacerbated financial
problems of many large-scale BRI projects and plummeted China’s overseas
coal power investments in 2020. In November 2020, the MEE released the
classification methodology of the Traffic Light system, based on international
practices such as the EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy and the Equator
Principles.43 For example, the system labels coal-fired power plants under a
red light, which is not recommended for financial support, while other types
of projects, such as hydropower and railways, would need to implement in-
ternationally recognized mitigation measures to earn a “green” status. In ad-
dition, solar and wind power are considered green projects for they advance
the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. As of this writing, the Traffic Light
system has gained endorsement from individual officials from ministries in-
cluding NDRC, CBRC, and MOFCOM. Still, how the system may overcome

Jessica C. Liao

the bureaucratic obstacle and be adopted into a set of implantable and well-co-
ordinated policy guidelines and whether it could apply to all Chinese banks,
including policy banks, remain to be seen. While China’s recent backing away
from financing coal power plants in Bangladesh is a positive sign of the devel-
opment, the recently released 14th FYP—which said little about ending coal
power construction—demonstrates the continued gap between China’s com-
mitments and actions under the mercantilist influence.

Policy Implications for the United States:

A Three-Pronged Approach to a Green BRI
This research explains how in spite of increased efforts, China, with other
political and economic priorities in mind, has been far from effective in
achieving the goal of greening the BRI. This finding has important policy
implications for the United States and its renewed focus on climate policy
under the Biden Administration. This research shows that the United States
should hold China and its BRI campaign accountable for its action in the
Global South as well its impact on global environmental governance. To
achieve this goal, the United States needs a three-pronged approach that
deals not only with China but also with the Global North and South. In
proceeding with this three-pronged approach, the following section identi-
fies key tactics and strategies for consideration.
First prong towards China: U.S.-China policy is often framed as a coop-
eration-vs.-competition dichotomy, which obstructs discussions of policy
options at the practical level. This report suggests moving beyond this view
and instead look into areas where, from the standpoint of U.S. climate policy,
China’s BRI practices and policies are most in need of change. As the report
shows, the United States should urge China to align its BRI practices and
foreign economic policy environmental framework with international stan-
dards. For example, Beijing could force its export credit agencies to adopt the
Equator Principle and OECD Common Approaches in their environmental
and social due diligence guidelines. In doing so, the United States needs to
not only contest but also engage China. Engagement is crucial, especially for
penetrating a Chinese bureaucracy whose internal relations and interests are
so complex and conflicting that they often deter meaningful policy changes.

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

The key is to help China build a “pro-green” coalition from within. To

do so, the United States should increase contact with China’s sustainability-
minded circles, both within and beyond the government, to exchange infor-
mation, disseminate knowledge, and build their capacity to hold Chinese
firms accountable for their overseas conduct. Such goals are rather achiev-
able considering recent trends in China, such as its new carbon neutrality
goals and release of the “traffic light system,” which could indicate that sus-
tainability-minded circles are gaining influence and in favor of a more pro-
gressive approach to greening BRI. However, as the report shows, as long as
more powerful and higher-tier ministries such as MOFCOM, NDRC, and
SASAC—often made up of mercantilist-minded officials—remain unready to
support such measures, greening BRI will remain a daunting task. Therefore,
U.S. engagement should also focus on those ministries. Nevertheless, these
ministries would likely not respond well to U.S. sermons on environmental
justice. The United States should therefore pressure and persuade them with
a focus on the economic and political risks of an environmentally race-to-the-
bottom in BRI countries. COVID-19 caused substantial financial distress in
many large-scale BRI projects and emerging interest in renewable energy proj-
ects are opportunities to engage in dialogue along these lines. To successfully
pressure and persuade China, the United States needs to construct a results-
oriented dialogue platform for a host of offices and agencies in both Beijing
and Washington, something that is currently lacking.
While U.S. policymakers might be hesitant to construct new dialogue
frameworks given how unproductive and bloated U.S.–China dialogues be-
came under the Obama administration, in this case Washington could take
a page from China’s playbook. Beijing frequently uses its bilateral “partner-
ship frameworks” to engage in dialogues with its strategic and comprehensive
strategic partners. The dialogues offer Beijing an opportunity to exert its dis-
course and convening power and to introduce new norms and practices to its
counterpart countries. Although it should now be painfully clear that U.S.
engagement is not going to change China, on the issues of climate change
and environment that Beijing often perceives as “win-win” in making foreign
collaboration, the United States still has an advantage in shaping the narra-
tive and controlling discourse. Over time, this “discourse power” can induce
Beijing to play a “race-to-the-top” type game.

Jessica C. Liao

Second prong towards the Global North: The United States cannot engage
China effectively without getting other creditor countries and environmental
groups on board. Engaging creditor countries is also essential from the stand-
point of global governance. China’s push for BRI and its rise as the world’s
largest export creditor has weakened the efficacy of an OECD-centric export
credit regime. While the OECD Working Party on Export Credits and Credit
Guarantees, created in 2012, aimed to bring China, along with other emerg-
ing export creditors, in line with other OECD countries, it has been mostly un-
successful.44 The United States needs to continue working with other OECD
countries in making concerting efforts to improve Chinese policy banks’ envi-
ronmental practices. To that end, Japan and South Korea, the OECD’s two top
exporters of coal-fired power technologies, are particularly important. Last year,
under increased civil society pressure, both Japan and South Korea announced
that their export credit agencies would phase out coal-fired power projects, thus
making Exim China and CDB the primary target of transnational climate net-
works. The United States should continue to engage other OECD countries
in pressuring Chinese policy banks to adopt a carbon policy in line with other
export credit agencies. The goal, again, is to induce China to play a race-to-the-
top game. This is not to say that an OECD-led export credit regime is perfect.
Instead, it suggests that global environmental governance on export credits
would be ineffective, if not impossible, absent China’s participation.
Third prong towards the Global South: Engagement with the Global South is
often neglected, but of crucial importance. After all, it is the host government
that has the final say whether to build BRI projects or not. For countries strug-
gling with basic infrastructure, simply asking them to avoid the “debt trap” is not
going to make them turn down Chinese financial assistance. Chinese firms and
banks often insist that they simply respond to host country demands. However,
if the nature of that demand can shift towards more sustainable projects, change
could flow quickly. We have seen this shift in Vietnam where Feed-in Tariffs
have brought a flood of foreign investment in solar and offshore wind.45 Chinese
state-owned firm Power China’s winning bid in Vietnam’s wind power project
last year shows the importance of host countries’ agency in greening BRI.
In this sense, the United States should provide tangible support for coun-
tries in the Global South to create sustainable development incentives. Such
support should be comprehensive, covering both policy and industrial levels

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

assistance, and cater to the needs of both government and civil society. One
particular area where the United States can contribute is in improving in-
formation transparency, which host countries need to make better-informed
policy decisions. Stimson Center’s Mekong Infrastructure Tracker is a prime
example.46 In addition to technical assistance, the United States should also
consider providing funding for areas that China currently lags, but are critical
to the Global South’s renewable energy development, such as grid upgrades
that allow energy efficiency and flexibility. To this end, cooperation with
other creditor countries, as well as China, is necessary.
The above discussion provides an agenda for the United States to address
at the United Nations climate summit in April 2021. To reiterate, the United
States should not only focus on China. It also needs to engage other countries
as well, particularly those in the Global South, and to take different but mu-
tually supported policy actions in order to manage the global commons and
tackle climate change. It is time for the United States to reassert its global
environmental leadership after spending four long years in the policy desert.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

I am grateful to North Carolina State University and the Wilson Center for
support that made this research possible. I also want to thank Jennifer Turner
and Lucas Myers for consistent support throughout the fellowship year; Tom
Baxter, Lucas Myers, Christoph Nedopil, Cecilia Han Springer for valuable
feedback; Noah Lenhardt and Adam Fields for editing support; and many
others I interviewed or helped with my interviews for dedicating to environ-
mental accountability in China and beyond. I retain sole responsibility for
any errors or omissions in this report.

1. The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement
on Climate Change,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, September
25, 2015.

Jessica C. Liao

2. Kevin P. Gallagher et al., “China’s Global Power Database,” (Global Development Policy
Center, Boston University, 2018).
3. Brian Eyler, Last Days of the Mighty Mekong (London: Zed Books, 2019); Frauke Urban,
Giuseppina Siciliano, and Johan Nordensvard, “China’s Dam-Builders: Their Role in
Transboundary River Management in South-East Asia,” International Journal of Water
Resources Development 34:5 (June 13, 2017): 747–70.
4. Peiyue Li, Hui Qian, and Wanfang Zhou, “Finding Harmony Between the Environment and
Humanity: An Introduction to the Thematic Issue of the Silk Road,” Environmental Earth
Sciences 76:3 (January 25, 2017): 105; Elizabeth Losos et al., Reducing Environmental Risks
from Belt and Road Initiative Investments in Transportation Infrastructure (World Bank,
2019); World Wildlife Foundation, “The Belt and Road Initiative: WWF Recommendations
and Spatial Analysis” (World Wildlife Foundation, 2017),
5. Radio Free Asia, “China Belt and Road Scheme Brings Warnings from Scientists and
Environmentalists,” Radio Free Asia, 2018,
6. Xiaoxi Li, Chenhua Guan, and Yongsheng Lin, “Position and Function of Environment
Protection in the Strategy of One Belt and One Road (环保在我国‘一带一路’战略中的定位与
作用),” Environment and Sustainable Development 41:1 (2016): 7–13; Ran Xie, “Opportunities,
Challenges, and Solutions of Green ‘Belt and Road’ Development (绿色‘一带一路’建设的机
遇、挑战与对策),” Journal of International Economic Cooperation 4 (2017): 10–13.
7. Mark Beeson, “Developmental States in East Asia: A Comparison of the Japanese and
Chinese Experiences,” Asian Perspective 33:2 (2009): 5–39; Geoffrey C. Chen and Charles
Lees, “Growing China’s Renewables Sector: A Developmental State Approach,” New Political
Economy 21:6 (November 1, 2016): 574–86; Christopher M. Dent, “Renewable Energy and
East Asia’s New Developmentalism: Towards a Low Carbon Future?,” The Pacific Review 25:5
(December 1, 2012): 561–87.
8. Mark Beeson, “The Coming of Environmental Authoritarianism,” Environmental Politics
19:2 (March 1, 2010): 276–94; Bruce Gilley, “Authoritarian Environmentalism and China’s
Response to Climate Change,” Environmental Politics 21:2 (March 1, 2012): 287–307.
economic development and the environmental degradation with which they are associated. A
resurgence of authoritarian rule is made even more likely by China’s ‘successful’ developmental
example and the extent of the region’s existing environmental problems. The dispiriting reality
may be that authoritarian regimes—unattractive as they may be—may even prove more capable
of responding to the complex political and environmental pressures in the region than some
of its democracies.”,”container-title”:”Environmental Politics”,”ISSN”:”0964-4016”,”issue”:”
2”,”note”:”publisher: Routledge\n_eprint:”,”p
age”:”276–294”,”source”:”Taylor and Francis+NEJM”,”title”:”The coming of environmental

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

,”itemData”:{“id”:498,”type”:”article-journal”,”abstract”:”Authoritarian environmentalism
is a non-participatory approach to public policy-making and implementation in the face
of severe environmental challenges. Using the case of China’s climate change policy, the
meaning, causes, and consequences of authoritarian environmentalism are explored. A key
finding is that authoritarian environmentalism is more effective in producing policy outputs
than outcomes. Theoretical and policy implications follow.”,”container-title”:”Environmental
Routledge”,”page”:”287–307”,”source”:” (Atypon
9. Geoffrey C. Chen and Charles Lees, “Growing China’s Renewables Sector: A Developmental
State Approach,” New Political Economy 21: 6 (November 1, 2016): 574–86; Christopher M.
Dent, “Renewable Energy and East Asia’s New Developmentalism: Towards a Low Carbon
Future?,” The Pacific Review 25:5 (December 1, 2012): 561–87.
10. For more discussion about the evolution of mercantilism, see Ha-Joon Chang, Bad
Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (New York:
Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
11. About China’s neo-mercantilist practice, see Zhimin Chen, “Nationalism, Internationalism and
Chinese Foreign Policy,” Journal of Contemporary China 14:42 (February 1, 2005): 35–53.
12. Shi Yi, “The 14th Five Year Plan Sends Mixed Message about China’s near-Term Climate
Trajectory,” China Dialogue (blog), March 8, 2021,
13. Björn Conrad, “China in Copenhagen: Reconciling the ‘Beijing Climate Revolution’ and
the ‘Copenhagen Climate Obstinacy,’” The China Quarterly 210 (June 2012): 435–55;
Joanna I. Lewis, China’s Environmental Diplomacy, Climate Change, Domestic Politics, and
International Engagement, China Across the Divide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013);
Linda Powell, “Climate Superpowers | Wilson Center,” The Wilson Center, 2020, https://
14. Jerry McBeath and Bo Wang, “China’s Environmental Diplomacy,” American Journal of
Chinese Studies 15:1 (2008): 1–16; Adrian Rauchfleisch and Mike S. Schäfer, “Climate
Change Politics and the Role of China: A Window of Opportunity to Gain Soft Power?,”
International Communication of Chinese Culture 5:1–2 (March 26, 2018): 39–59.
15. Ryna Cui, “China’s 2060 Carbon Neutrality Target: Opportunities and
Challenges,” China Dialogue (blog), 2020,
16. Wu Jiao, “Xi Proposes a ‘new Silk Road’ with Central Asia,” China Daily, 2013, https://www.
17. The State Council, the People’s Republic of China, “Initiative Offers Road Map for Peace,
Prosperity,” The State Council, the People’s Republic of China, 2015, http://english.www.
18. Xinhua News, “Full Text of President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum,”
Xinhua News, 2017,
19. The Ministry of Environmental Protection, the People’s Republic of China, “The Belt and
Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan,” 2017,

Jessica C. Liao

20. Christian Shepherd Blanchard Ben, “China’s Xi Offers Another $60 Billion to Africa, but
Says No to ‘vanity’ Projects,” Reuters, September 3, 2018,
21. These countries include Angola, Armenia, Cambodia, Cuba, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland,
Gambia, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Laos, Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia,
Myanmar, Niger, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Togo and United Arab Emirates.
22. China Daily, “The BRI Progress, Contributions and Prospects - Chinadaily.
Com.Cn,” China Daily, 2019,
23. Lachlan Carey and Sarah Ladislaw, “Chinese Multilateralism and the Promise of a Green
Belt and Road,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2019, https://csis-website-
24. Binbin Wang, “After China’s Ministerial Shake-up, What’s next for South-South Climate
Cooperation?,” China Dialogue (blog), 2018,
25. Xiuli Xu et al., “Science, Technology, and the Politics of Knowledge: The Case of China’s
Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centers in Africa,” World Development, China and
Brazil in African Agriculture, 81 (May 1, 2016): 82–91.
26. Tyler Harlan, “A Green Development Model: Transnational Model-Making in China’s
Small Hydropower Training Programmes,” Area Development and Policy 2:3 (September 2,
2017): 251–71.
27. Tyler Harlan, “Green Development or Greenwashing? A Political Ecology Perspective on
China’s Green Belt and Road,” Eurasian Geography and Economics, (2020): 1–25.
28. Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro, “China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled
Planet | Wiley,”, 2020.
29. Xinhua News, “Full Text: China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era,”
Xinhua News, 2021,
30. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and Oxford Economics, “Belt and Road
Interim Report: Tracking Evolving Scope, Discovering Expanding Opportunities,” 2018.
31. The Climate Bonds Initiative and China Central Depository & Clearing Research Centre,
“China Green Bond Market 2019 Research Report,” 2020,
32. Kelly Gallagher and Qi Qi, “Policies Governing China’s Overseas Development Finance
Implications for Climate Change” (The Center for International Environment & Resource
Policy, 2018),
33. Tao Hu, “A Look at China’s New Environmental Guidelines on Overseas
Investments,” World Resources Institute, 2013,
34. Wei Huang, “Belt and Road Insiders: What We Think about ‘Greening’ the Initiative,”
Panda Paw Dragon Claw, 2018,

China’s Green Mercantilism and Environmental Governance

35. Gallagher and Qi, “Policies Governing China’s Overseas Development Finance Implications
for Climate Change”; Jun Ma and Simon Zadek, “Decarbonizing the Belt and Road: A
GREEN FINANCE ROADMAP” (the Tsinghua University Center for Finance and
Development, Vivid Economics and the Climate works Foundation, 2019); Tancrède
Voituriez, Wang Yao, and Mathias Lund Larsen, “Revising the ‘Host Country Standard’
Principle: A Step for China to Align Its Overseas Investment with the Paris Agreement,”
Climate Policy 19, no. 10 (November 26, 2019): 1205–10.
36. Friends of Earth, “Investing in a Green Belt and Road? Assessing the Implementation of
China’s Green Credit Guidelines Abroad,” Friends of the Earth, 2017,
Voituriez, Yao, and Larsen, “Revising the ‘Host Country Standard’ Principle.”
37. World Wildlife Foundation, “The Belt and Road Initiative: WWF Recommendations and
Spatial Analysis.”
38. Sean Kidney and Padraig Oliver, “Growing a Green Bonds Market in China: Reducing Costs
and Increasing Capacity for Green Investment While Promoting Greater Transparency and
Stability in Financial Markets,” 2014.
39. Shuang Liu, “Will China Finally Block ‘Clean Coal’ from Green Bonds
Market?,” World Resources Institute, 2020,
40. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, “Joint Communique of the Leaders’
Roundtable of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation,” 2019, https://
41. Rebecca Ray and Joshua Pitts, “Geolocated Dataset of Chinese Overseas Development
Finance,” Boston University, September 29, 2020.
42. World Wildlife Foundation, “Greening the Belt and Road Initiative WWF’s
Recommendations for the Finance Sector—in Conjunction with HSBC,” 2018, https://
43. Tianjie Ma, “Advisors Propose New System to Regulate China’s Overseas Investments,”
China Dialogue (blog), December 4, 2020,
44. Jessica C. Liao, “The Club-Based Climate Regime and OECD Negotiations on Restricting
Coal-Fired Power Export Finance,” Global Policy, 2020.
45. IEEFA, “Vietnam’s Extraordinary Rooftop Solar Success Deals Another Blow to the
Remaining Coal Pipeline,” Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis (blog),
January 12, 2021,
46. For more information, see Mekong Infrastructure Tracker’s website: https://www.stimson.


Japan, Taiwan, the

United States, and the
“Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

Adam P. Liff is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and associate

professor of East Asian international relations at Indiana
University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International
Studies, where he also directs the 21st Century Japan Politics and
Society Initiative. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the
Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Adam P. Liff

Executive Summary:
Against the backdrop of worsening tensions across the Taiwan Strait, this
study 1) examines democratic Taiwan’s importance to the United States’ and
Japan’s shared vision for the region’s “free and open” future; 2) highlights re-
cent developments in Japan-Taiwan relations; and 3) suggests policy options to
bolster U.S.-Japan-Taiwan cooperation in pursuit of a positive regional agenda
beyond strictly deterrence. It argues that the trajectory of Japan-Taiwan rela-
tions carries major implications for both U.S. regional strategy and Taiwan
policy, and therefore warrants significantly greater attention in Washington
than it typically receives. U.S.-Japan cooperation, or lack thereof, in this space
will be a critical variable affecting both the region’s—and Taiwan’s—future.
This study closes with a discussion of prospects for more extensive Japan-
Taiwan cooperation and explores policy options, including ways to enhance
U.S.-Japan coordination to facilitate the diversification of Taiwan’s economic
linkages and to expand functional cooperation with the U.S., Japan, and
other democratic partners.

Policy Recommendations:
● Launch parallel, comprehensive inter-agency reviews of Taiwan policy as
part of a more general review of regional strategies aimed at championing
a positive vision; consult and coordinate with each other informally.

● Prioritize substantive cooperation that enhances Taiwan’s security,

prosperity, and resilience against external coercion, and which proactively
engages Taiwan as a valued partner in efforts to positively shape the
region’s “free and open” future.

● Support Taiwan’s efforts to diversify economic links and expand trilateral

and multilateral functional cooperation, including with partners beyond
East Asia, through an expanded Global Cooperation and Training
Framework and other ad-hoc bilateral/multilateral coalitions.

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

● Establish/expand security dialogues and cooperation in counter-coercion,

collective resilience, non-traditional security, cyber, and information/

● Significantly expand funding to support bilateral/trilateral Track 1.5 and

Track 2 dialogues, as well as scholarly/academic/student exchanges—
especially among the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.

Adam P. Liff

A widely-recognized characteristic of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC;

henceforth, “China”) foreign policy in recent years is Beijing’s increased use
of its growing material power and influence to more assertively, at times ag-
gressively, throw its weight around in pursuit of policy goals. One of the most
important and potentially destabilizing manifestations of this trend today is
China’s increasingly coercive posture toward democratic Taiwan since 2016.1
As Beijing pressures Taiwan through military, economic, diplomatic, and
other means, including efforts to shrink its “international space,” the impor-
tance of Taipei’s ties with and support from major democratic partners—the
United States and Japan above all—has surged.
Over the past five years, concerns in Tokyo and Washington about cross-
Strait tensions have grown more acute. In 2016, a landslide election victory
handed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Taiwan’s presidency and
its first-ever majority in the Legislative Yuan. Ever since, out of apparent sus-
picions that the DPP’s goal is de jure independence, Beijing has effectively
refused to engage President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration constructively,
despite the latter’s clear pro-status quo orientation. If Beijing’s goal was to con-
vince Taiwanese voters to choose different leadership, its hard line appears to
have backfired, at least for now: in January 2020, Tsai was reelected by a his-
torically large margin. Today, public opinion polls suggest that the clear ma-
jority of the Taiwanese public still prefers maintaining the cross-Strait status
quo. However, since 2019 support for unification appears to have reached its
lowest level since at least 1994, while support for independence has increased.2
Though these outcomes are a testament to the resilience of Taiwan’s de-
mocracy and rejection of Beijing’s efforts at intimidation, the resulting cross-
Strait frictions have significantly raised concerns about the stability of the
status quo, which then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun char-
acterized last year as a “state of hostility.”3 As Richard Bush, former chairman
and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan, argued in late
2019, Beijing’s strategy toward democratic Taiwan has shifted “from persua-
sion to coercion”; with its goal “to end the island’s separate political existence
and incorporate it into the People’s Republic of China…and so place limits on
Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy.”4 For many observers on Taiwan and be-
yond, Beijing’s recent crackdown in Hong Kong provides a sobering reminder
of the potential stakes.

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

The United States’ forward-leaning rhetoric and policies in support of

Taiwan have been well documented. Less widely appreciated in D.C. policy
circles is that Japan-Taiwan relations have also evolved significantly in recent
years. Furthermore, in recent months a few Japanese officials have become un-
usually outspoken about their concerns about cross-Strait dynamics. For ex-
ample, in a blog post last May, Japan’s state minister for foreign affairs called
Taiwan a “security lifeline” [安全保障上、⽣命線] for Japan and asserted
that Japan “cannot allow [its] people living in [a] free society to be overrun
by the [Chinese] Communist Party.”5 In a December interview, Japan’s state
minister for defense identified China and Taiwan as a “red line in Asia,” and
called on (then) President-elect Biden to “be strong” in supporting Taiwan
in the face of China’s “aggressive stance.”6 Most recently, March 2021 wit-
nessed several exceptional statements from Cabinet-level officials directly
referencing the Taiwan Strait. In a March 13 speech to an international con-
ference, Japan’s Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo expressed “grave concern”
about Beijing’s recent actions to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, subtly
stated that the situation made him “recall our friends in Taiwan,” noted that
“the military balance between China and Taiwan has changed in favor of
China,” and called for cross-Strait issues to be “resolved peacefully by direct
dialogue.” 7 Three days later, he joined his foreign ministry counterpart and
the U.S. secretaries of state and defense in releasing a U.S.-Japan joint state-
ment calling out China by name, criticizing its recent “behavior;” expressing
the allies’ “commit[ment] to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior to-
ward others;” and “underscor[ing] the importance of peace and stability in the
Taiwan Strait.”8
Importantly, such U.S. and Japanese concerns about Taiwan’s future do
not unfold in a regional political or strategic vacuum. Indeed, for reasons in-
cluding and transcending cross-Strait dynamics, recent years have witnessed
Tokyo and Washington express deepening concerns about China’s growing
power and willingness to use coercion toward its neighbors.9 Both govern-
ments now openly advocate for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” implicitly (or,
in some cases, explicitly) juxtaposed against Beijing’s putative regional vision.
To quote the recent U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “Quad Leaders’” statement,
the goal is a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by demo-
cratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.”10

Adam P. Liff

Against the backdrop of manifold challenges to regional peace and sta-

bility, liberal democracy, and the interests of the U.S. and its allies and part-
ners, this study explores prospects for greater U.S.-Japan cooperation with,
and in support of, democratic Taiwan. After briefly discussing the U.S.-
Japan partnership and its priorities beyond military deterrence, it provides
a brief overview of the importance of Taiwan to the allies’ shared vision of
a “free and open” order, as well as Beijing’s recent challenges to it. In the
interest of informing the largely U.S.-centric discourse in Washington on
Taiwan, the next section then briefly surveys the recent deepening of Japan-
Taiwan ties. The final sections assess prospects for enhanced bilateral/trilat-
eral coordination and suggest some options for policymakers in Tokyo and
Washington to consider.

The U.S.-Japan Partnership: Bolstering a

Positive Agenda Beyond Strictly Deterrence
Over the past several years, prominent critics argue that the efficacy of U.S.
Asia strategy has suffered from by an over-emphasis on military and deter-
rence-oriented tools in lieu of more balanced employment of what former
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calls “the full range of its power,” including
nonmilitary tools.11 Given the complexity of contemporary realities in Asia,
where many countries count China as their top trading partner, a nuanced,
positive and comprehensive approach that also maximally resources and em-
ploys U.S. diplomatic, economic, and other forms of leadership to support the
region’s peaceful and prosperous future is essential. After all, recent events
make clear that the challenges to the region’s “free and open” future tran-
scend strictly military threats. Cases-in-point related to China include an ac-
celerating tech competition, economic security concerns, disinformation, and
Beijing’s employment of trade-restrictive measures to either signal displeasure
or openly coerce its neighbors.12 All of the above have already affected the
United States and/or its regional allies and partners.
Failure to effectively adapt U.S. strategy to the complex reality of today’s
diverse and interdependent region risks undermining the very alliances and
partnerships that are the United States’ single greatest comparative advan-
tage in any strategic competition or effort to shape the region’s future. In

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

short, robust military deterrence and security cooperation are necessary, but
far from sufficient, conditions for achieving the United States and Japan’s
longer-term vision an strategic goals in Asia.
The complexity of regional challenges today creates considerable oppor-
tunities beyond the security domain for the United States and Japan, bi-
laterally and in coordination with others, to support Taiwan in peacetime,
bolster its resilience against coercion, and expand its effective international
space. Fortunately, the U.S.-Japan partnership is well-suited for peacetime
cooperation in support of a positive and comprehensive bilateral agenda be-
yond deterrence.
Despite its early Cold War/containment origins, even the U.S.-Japan se-
curity alliance’s objectives have always been more ambitious than a lowest-
common denominator cold and negative peace based exclusively on deterring
aggression. In 1960, Tokyo and Washington formed their mutual security
partnership based explicitly on “uphold[ing] “the principles of democracy, in-
dividual liberty, and the rule of law,” “closer economic cooperation,” and “a
common concern in the maintenance of international peace and security in
the Far East.”13 The allies called for protecting “international peace and se-
curity and justice” and the peaceful settlement of international disputes; “en-
couraging economic collaboration”; and “contributing to the security of Japan
and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”14
Today, these basic commitments are reflected in the allies’ ever-tightening
security partnership from peacetime to gray zone to armed attack; coopera-
tion in a variety of spheres, from trade and infrastructure to climate; and their
repeated calls across multiple administrations to “enhance our shared vision
of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” and repeated definition of the U.S.-
Japan alliance as “a cornerstone for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-
Pacific region and around the world.”15

Taiwan’s Importance to a “Free and Open”

Vision for the Region’s Future
In 2021, a strong, moderate, actively engaged, and democratic Taiwan is a
necessary condition of, and a crucial partner for, achieving the allies’ shared
vision of a “free and open” region. Taiwan has a unique status as a bastion

Adam P. Liff

of liberalism situated literally and figuratively on the front lines of deepening

U.S.-China strategic competition; as an open economy and high-tech leader;
as a robust, if unofficial, partner in various endeavors promoted by both
Washington and Tokyo; and as the singular example of an advanced democ-
racy in the (primarily) Chinese-speaking world. Accordingly, both the United
States and Japan have recognized the importance of democratic Taiwan and
its 24 million people to the region’s future, and its immense symbolic signifi-
cance across the Strait, and beyond. As the U.S. AIT Director stated recently,
“Taiwan belongs to the family of democracies and is an essential part of the
free and open Indo-Pacific.”16 Japanese leaders similarly identify Taiwan as
“an extremely crucial partner and an important friend, with which [Japan]
shares fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights,
and the rule of law.”17 The reasons for Taiwan’s importance to the allies and
their stated vision for the region’s future are manifold, beyond the obvious se-
curity considerations:
Whether one accepts the most recent (Trump-era) U.S. National Security
strategy’s portrayal of “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive
visions  of world order,”18 Taiwan clearly stands out as a regional beacon of
freedom and openness through its robust democracy, liberal economy, good
governance, civil society, and human rights. Its rapid transformation from a
single-party authoritarian state under martial law as recently as the 1980s into
one of the world’s most liberal democracies is striking, and instructive.19
Over the past year-plus, Taiwan’s extraordinarily effective response to the
COVID-19 pandemic has powerfully illustrated its political and social stabil-
ity, effective governance, economic vibrancy, and ability to contribute inter-
nationally. With a cumulative total of only ~940 confirmed cases and nine
deaths (as of February 22, 2021) and its status as Asia’s top-performing econ-
omy in 2020 (GDP +3.1%),20 the success of democratic Taiwan’s response pro-
vides a powerful counter to Beijing’s propaganda about the supposed inherent
superiority of China’s authoritarian political system. Taiwan’s effective coun-
termeasures against disinformation, both in terms of its COVID-19 response
and during its 2020 election provide another example of the lessons it can
share with the world.21 Yet Taiwan does not only contribute passively by its
example. As leading experts on authoritarian politics recently argued, Taipei’s
active and constructive efforts “preserving and defending democracy in Hong

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

Kong and around the world…establishes Taiwan as the new front line in a
broader struggle for democracy and human rights in Asia, and worldwide.”22
In terms of its economy, Taiwan ranks among the world’s most free and
open—ranking higher, in fact, than major U.S. democratic allies South Korea,
Germany, and Japan.23 Its economy is also closely tied to the United States’
and Japan’s: Taiwan’s second- and third-largest trading partners, respectively.24
(Despite its relatively small population, Taiwan is Japan’s fourth-largest trad-
ing partner, 25 as well as a top-10 trading partner of the United States).26
In terms of its approach to potentially incendiary territorial and sovereignty
disputes—a critical variable in regional stability today—Taiwan again serves
as an important exemplar. Despite officially holding sovereignty claims in the
South and East China Seas similar to those asserted by the PRC, Taiwan’s ap-
proach and relative self-restraint evince a striking contrast in approach. Under
President Ma Ying-jeou’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, for example, Taiwan
adopted a firm but constructive position: “while sovereignty is indivisible, re-
sources can be shared.” Japan and Taiwan peacefully negotiated a landmark
fisheries agreement to reduce tensions in 2013, without either compromising
on its sovereignty claim.27
Finally, Taiwan’s geostrategic position is arguably without parallel concern-
ing its importance for the United States and Japan, and inherent significance
for any regional strategy. Taiwan straddles both Northeast and Southeast Asia
and the South and East China Seas, is a central node in the “first island chain,”
and is only ~70 miles from Japan’s westernmost islands (and just 350 miles
from major Japan Self-defense Force and U.S. military bases in Okinawa).

Beijing’s Post-2016 “Squeeze” on Democratic Taiwan

In recent years, a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait frictions has become increas-
ingly difficult to imagine. Since President Tsai’s 2016 election, Beijing’s efforts
to coerce Taipei and actively undermine Taiwan’s de facto autonomy have ex-
panded significantly. In the words of Ryan Hass, former U.S. National Security
Council director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, Beijing has “unrelentingly
squeezed Taiwan.”28 Its diplomatic, political, economic, and military pressure
on Taipei includes freezing official cross-Strait communication, reducing tourist
outflows, intensifying provocative military operations,29 peeling away several of

Adam P. Liff

Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, disinformation and other forms of “infor-

mation warfare,”30 and even excluding Taiwan from participating as an observer
in the WHO’s World Health Assembly during a global pandemic.
Beijing’s severe crackdown in Hong Kong on “national security” grounds
(and the resulting collapse of the “One Country, Two Systems” model Xi
Jinping in 2019 identified as Beijing’s desired outcome vis-à-vis Taiwan)31 has
heightened these concerns. Last summer, the Trump Administration’s top
diplomat for East Asia stated that Beijing’s June 2020 Hong Kong national se-
curity law meant the U.S. government “no longer ha[s] the luxury of assuming
that Beijing will live up to its commitment to peacefully resolve its differences
with Taipei […Accordingly, the United States] will continue to help Taipei
resist the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to pressure, intimidate
and marginalize Taiwan.”32 Two months earlier, President Tsai tweeted that
“China’s disregard for the will of Hong Kong’s people proves that ‘one coun-
try, two systems’ is not viable (不可行).”33 In his March 2021 speech, Japan’s
defense minister expressed “grave concern” over Beijing’s decision earlier that
month to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, noting that it will “further
undermine confidence in the Hong Kong Basic Law and the ‘One Country,
Two Systems’ framework…and represents a major setback for the high degree
of autonomy in Hong Kong.”34
These recent developments across the Strait and in Hong Kong contrib-
ute to a sobering trajectory for a region already defined the past several years
by a post-1970s nadir in U.S.-China relations, and in which both Tokyo and
Washington already see Beijing as their primary long-term geopolitical and
geoeconomic challenge.
In this context, Taiwanese officials’ champion Taiwan’s status as a liberal,
democratic partner and seek out robust international partnerships to coun-
ter Beijing’s efforts to isolate it.35 The U.S. government’s response has received
significant attention, including arms sales, legislation (e.g., the Taiwan Travel
Act (2018), Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative
(TAIPEI) Act (2020), the Taiwan Assurance Act (2020), and Taiwan-related
measures in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act), and explora-
tion of a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan. Yet Japan’s embrace of
“like-minded” partners—especially democratic U.S. partners—under its own
(2013) National Security Strategy and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

is also significant in this context. To inform U.S. policy debates, the next sec-
tion briefly summarizes the recent expansion of cooperation and exchange be-
tween Japan and Taiwan.

Japan-Taiwan Relations in the 21st Century:

Toward a Deepening Partnership
For historical, geographical, political, economic, and manifold other reasons,
Japan-Taiwan relations have long been very important for Taiwan—both di-
rectly and indirectly. Taiwan’s leaders rank Japan alongside the United States
as Taipei’s most important international partner.36 Taiwan’s cross-Strait en-
gagement relies heavily on the U.S.-Japan alliance as a stabilizing force and
is itself a major variable in trilateral relations among Beijing, Washington,
and Tokyo. Meanwhile, Beijing also recognizes Japan’s importance, both for
cross-Strait relations and because, as one of Japan’s leading experts on Taiwan
notes, China’s leaders perceive “the Taiwan issue…as the most uncertain and
the most serious problem facing China-Japan-U.S. relations.”37 Relative to
their central importance for U.S. policy objectives and shared status as “front-
line” democratic U.S. partners, the deep and complex ties between Japan and
Taiwan attract remarkably little direct attention or analysis from the U.S.
policy community.38 Yet the vicissitudes of Japan-Taiwan relations are hugely
consequential for U.S. interests in East Asia and beyond.
Despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972,
Tokyo has long enjoyed extensive, if “unofficial,” ties with Taiwan. In recent
years, relations have deepened in practically significant ways. The past decade,
in particular, has witnessed a clear and official acknowledgment by Japan’s
government of democratic Taiwan’s importance to Japan as a like-minded
“partner” (not just an “economy”), an expansion of meaningful cooperation
and exchanges, and a blossoming of people-to-people ties.

21st Century Developments

Though Japan-Taiwan relations are not without their frictions, one remarkable
theme over the past two decades is that interest in deepening cooperation in
both Taipei and Tokyo has been a relative constant and generally transcended

Adam P. Liff

party politics—at least across administrations. The most salient case-in-point

is developments during the administration of former KMT chairman and
President Ma Ying-jeou (2008–2016). Though many expected the KMT’s
return to power to cause Japan-Taiwan relations to worsen, the significant
relaxation of tensions across the Strait under Ma ended up facilitating an un-
precedented expansion of practical cooperation between Tokyo and Taipei,
including numerous bilateral agreements, exchange of memoranda of under-
standing between the two sides’ de facto embassies, and a historic 2013 agree-
ment on fisheries aimed at deescalating tensions over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in
Chinese) Islands, which Japan administers but over which Taiwan also claims
sovereignty in the name of the ROC.39

The Past Decade: A Deepening Partnership

As noted above, in its most recent (2020) Diplomatic Bluebook Japan’s gov-
ernment identifies Taiwan as “an extremely crucial partner and an important
friend, with which [Japan] shares fundamental values such as freedom, de-
mocracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law, and enjoys close economic
relations and people-to-people exchanges.”40 Viewed in isolation, such lan-
guage may seem insignificant; perhaps even boilerplate. But the contrast with
the same passage eight years earlier, which identified Taiwan merely as an “im-
portant region with which Japan has close economic relations,” illustrates just
how much Japan’s perspective on Taiwan has evolved in recent years.41
For example, the past decade has witnessed an expansion of significant, if
nominally “unofficial,” political contacts. Most remarkably, between 2010 and
2016, four former LDP prime ministers and three former DPJ ministers vis-
ited Taiwan.42 In 2013, Japan’s then Chief Cabinet Secretary (now prime min-
ister) Suga Yoshihide reportedly hosted the chairman of Taiwan’s Association
of East Asian Relations (now the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association) at the
prime minister’s office—the first such contact since 1972.43 Two years later,
then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō reportedly was at the same Tokyo hotel as—
and allegedly met with—Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui and DPP
chairperson (and future president) Tsai Ing-wen during their respective vis-
its to Japan.44 After Tsai’s election, during 2017 Japan sent the highest-level
government representative to visit Taiwan officially since 1972;45 launched

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

annual maritime cooperation dialogues with Taiwan;46 and added characters

representing “Japan” and “Taiwan” into the name of Japan’s de facto embassy
in Taipei.47 Last year, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō led a supra-parti-
san delegation of Dietmembers to pay its respects following the death of for-
mer Taiwanese President Lee. The trip reportedly included a meeting between
Mori and Tsai at the presidential office.48
Beyond deepening bilateral links, Japan’s government has also expanded
substantial cooperation in support of Taiwan in partnership with the United
States—a country with a unique status as both Taiwan’s and Japan’s most im-
portant political partner and de facto security guarantor.49 Today, as the Tsai
administration seeks to parry Beijing’s efforts to “shrink” Taiwan’s interna-
tional space by deepening international cooperation and reducing its economic
dependence on the PRC, Japan’s government has joined the United States in
repeatedly calling for Taiwan to gain observer status at the World Health
Assembly, expressed its support for Taiwan joining the Comprehensive and
Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and, in 2019,
formally joined the theretofore bilateral U.S.-Taiwan Global Cooperation
and Training Framework (GCTF; est. 2015). The State Department defines
GCTF as “a platform for expanding U.S.-Taiwan cooperation on global and
regional issues such as public health, economic development, energy, women’s
rights, and disaster relief.”50 Importantly, the GCTF was deliberately designed
to provide a means for Taiwan—which is prevented by Beijing from par-
ticipating in many international organizations—to “demonstrate and share
Taiwan’s strength and expertise with the rest of the world.”51
In short, the past decade has witnessed incremental but important efforts
to deepen practically significant—if nominally unofficial—ties, exchanges,
and cooperation between Japan and Taiwan. Supplementing and providing
fertile soil for continued expansion are extensive economic and extraordi-
narily friendly people-to-people ties. Taiwan is Japan’s fourth-largest trading
partner; while Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest. 52 Japan regularly polls as—far
and away—the most popular foreign country in Taiwan, and vice versa.53
Meanwhile, recent years have witnessed a surge in cross-border tourism to an
all-time high (in 2019; before COVID-19).54 Despite its relatively small popu-
lation, more tourists visit Japan from Taiwan (4.9 million) than anywhere else
except the PRC and Korea.55

Adam P. Liff

Prospects for Enhanced Japan-Taiwan Cooperation

The U.S., Japan, and Taiwan are natural partners. All three parties share a
commitment to democratic values, express deepening concerns about authori-
tarian China’s domestic and foreign policy trajectory, generally champion a
“rules-based” and liberal regional order, and oppose any attempts to subjugate
Taiwan through coercive or violent means. As fellow democracies, close treaty
allies, and the first- and third-largest economies in the world, the U.S. and
Japan have an especially critical role to play in not only deterring cross-Strait
conflict but also ensuring that Taiwan is able to benefit from, and actively con-
tribute to, a positive agenda for the region’s peaceful and prosperous future.
The United States, Japan, and Taiwan entered 2021 with momentum to
further deepen cooperation, and no shortage of challenges to demand it—be-
ginning with the COVID-19 pandemic and associated fallout. 2021 brings a
new U.S. administration eager to reassert U.S. leadership and democratic val-
ues, and (potentially) the first full year with Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide
at the helm of Japan’s government. At a major trilateral security forum held
in Taipei last December, President Tsai announced that 2021 would be a
year of “Japan-Taiwan Friendship” and that she “look[s] forward to an even
closer partnership with Japan and our efforts to address traditional and non-
traditional threats.”56 With the details of U.S. strategy under President Biden
a work-in-progress but likely to focus on “build[ing] a united front of U.S.
allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights
violations”57 and multilateral approaches to tackling various other challenges,
it is a particularly opportune moment to consider the prospects for enhanced
Japan-Taiwan and U.S.-Japan-Taiwan cooperation. Last October, then candi-
date Biden called for “deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy,
major economy, technology powerhouse—and a shining example of how an
open society can effectively contain COVID-19.”58
As discussed above, Japan-Taiwan relations are robust, if unofficial, and
extensive—permeating politics, economics, and people-to-people ties. A solid
foundation exists for expanding cooperation in pursuit of a positive agenda
for the region, both bilaterally and in partnership with the United States.
Opportunities abound. But challenges must also be acknowledged.

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

Taiwan has expressed interest in joining the Japan-led, 11-nation CPTPP, and
the Suga administration—which holds the CPTPP’s rotating chair in 2021—
has expressed its support.59 (In contrast, Tokyo has expressed skepticism
that China—which also recently expressed interest in joining—could meet
CPTPP’s high standards).60 Taiwan joining CPTPP would be both power-
fully symbolic and practically important. Roughly one-fourth of Taiwan’s
total trade is with current CPTPP members, and if Taiwan were a member its
economy would be the fifth-largest. If the United States were to also (re-)join,
CPTPP’s importance to Taiwan (and Japan) would increase significantly.
As it concerns regional economic strategies beyond trade, there is clear
complementarity between Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision
and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (新南向政策; NSBP)—a compre-
hensive initiative launched by President Tsai in 2016 to diversify and deepen
Taiwan’s links across the region through economic and trade cooperation,
people-to-people exchanges, resource sharing, and regional integration.61
Similar to FOIP, NSBP also has a strategic motivation. For example, it is de-
signed to reduce Taiwan’s asymmetric dependence on China’s economy.
There are also opportunities to further deepen (unofficial) Japan-Taiwan po-
litical exchange. Japan’s powerful and longest-ever serving former prime minis-
ter Abe Shinzō is reportedly planning to visit Taiwan this year.62 In February,
the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Foreign Affairs Division launched
a new Taiwan Policy Project Team (台湾政策検討プロジェクトチーム),
which its director stated was a direct response to both the Biden administra-
tion’s call to work with allies to support Taiwan and China’s recent provocative
military activities near Taiwan. He also expressed a desire to launch a “legis-
lator-level 2+2” (議員レベルの2+2) dialogue between LDP foreign and
defense committee members and their Taiwanese counterparts.63 The Project
Team is reportedly planning to submit recommendations for strengthening
Japan’s relations with Taiwan to the Suga government by April.64
Within some LDP and extra-governmental circles in Japan there are in-
termittent calls for a “Japan Taiwan Relations Act” (日本版台湾関係法;
JTRA); a notional proposal for Japan to create a rough analogue to the 1979
U.S. Taiwan Relations Act.65 The basic idea has been around for decades, and
has some prominent supporters in both Taipei and Tokyo. For example, the

Adam P. Liff

DPP explicitly called for a JTRA during the Chen administration (2000–
2008).66 Over the past decade, the idea has received support from key Japanese
politicians, including current Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo in 2014 (six
years before, it should be stressed, he took his current Cabinet post), and con-
servative commentators in Japan.67 Also in 2014, then DPP lawmaker (now
Taiwan’s representative in the United States) Hsiao Bi-khim called for a bi-
lateral security dialogue to be part of a Japanese TRA aimed at deepening
security ties.68

Though Japan-Taiwan relations today demonstrate remarkable dynamism,
practical cooperation is more extensive than ever before, and opportunities to
further expand cooperation abound, important constraints, especially in the
security domain, must also be acknowledged. Constraints include, but are not
limited to, the most obvious: concerns in Tokyo about how Beijing—Japan’s
close neighbor and top trading partner—may respond.
As indicated above, Japan’s leaders clearly see national security and Taiwan
as inextricably linked. The two sides have also started regular maritime dia-
logues and engage in nontraditional security cooperation through the GCTF.
In early 2019, President Tsai reportedly called for more security cooperation
between Taipei and Tokyo.69 Nevertheless, Japan and Taiwan do not engage
in military cooperation or exercises. Though the idea of a “JTRA” is some-
times discussed within the ruling LDP and beyond, media and public dis-
course on this topic often creates more heat than light. Japan’s Diet actually
passing legislation similar to the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act, in particular its
famous security-focused Section 2, anytime soon seems unlikely.70
As it concerns U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation on Taiwan specifically, in
2005 the allies identified “encourage[ing] the peaceful resolution of issues
concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue” as a “common strategic objec-
tive.”71 To date, however, the direct applicability of the alliance to, and Japan’s
potential role in, a cross-Strait contingency is left rather ambiguous in the
public record. Though it has long been implied (e.g., in the “Far East” clause of
the 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty, or in the famous 1997 reference to “situa-
tions in areas surrounding Japan”), explicit references to “Taiwan” in alliance

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

statements/documents are extremely rare. Nevertheless, alliance managers

almost certainly factor in a possible cross-Strait contingency-type scenario
into planning—something that recent reforms in Japan over the past decade
have facilitated.72 Soon after the release of the March 2021 U.S.-Japan joint
statement—which, as noted above, “underscored the importance of peace and
stability in the Taiwan Strait”—Japanese government sources reportedly con-
firmed that the allies would cooperate in the event of a cross-Strait military
contingency.73 Exactly how, and under what circumstances, remains unstated.
This may not be due entirely to concerns about Beijing’s response. As U.S.
Taiwan policy since 1979 attests, ambiguity can also have stabilizing effects.
Finally, Japan-Taiwan relations do not exist in a domestic political vacuum.
Within Japan, conservative political leaders seeking more forward-leaning
policies vis-à-vis Taiwan have often been constrained by various factors within
and outside the LDP-Komeitō ruling coalition, particularly from colleagues
concerned about Beijing’s reaction. Also affecting prospects for cooperation
are Taiwan’s ban on food imports from five prefectures near Japan’s 2011 nu-
clear disaster; frictions over sovereignty claims and fishing rights related to the
Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands and Okinotorishima; and historical issues. All
have festered intermittently in recent years—especially when KMT influence
is high. For example, high hopes within Japan that the Tsai administration
would end the ban on food imports—which Taiwan’s own FDA reportedly
states carry “negligible” risk—have so far been dashed, owing in significant
part to a popular 2018 public referendum pushed by the KMT. The conse-
quences are not only symbolic. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce recently
argued that economic agreements with Japan (including a bilateral FTA or
CPTPP entry) are likely to stall unless Taiwan lifts the ban. Some observers
hope that the Tsai administration’s recent executive action on U.S. pork im-
ports may augur a breakthrough.74
Despite the aforementioned constraints, the deepening of Japan-Taiwan
relations over the past decade—together with the salient example of the
transformation of U.S.-Taiwan relations since the mid-1990s—makes clear
that the cumulative effect of gradual, evolutionary change can be significant.
Expanded exchanges, direct engagement, and deepened economic and func-
tional cooperation are already underway. There are significant prospects for
additional forward movement in the months and years ahead.

Adam P. Liff

Policy Options
In recent years, and without modifying its ambiguous 1972 official position
on “One China,” Japan has deepened its practical cooperation and exchanges
with Taiwan, both independently and in concert with the United States.
Given the region’s contemporary geopolitical vicissitudes, worsening cross-
Strait frictions, Japan’s status as a key U.S. treaty ally, and Taiwan’s unique
status as a close—if unofficial—democratic partner of both countries, the
United States and Japan should further enhance coordination aimed at sup-
porting Taiwan’s democracy and international space comprehensively, and in
ways beyond strictly deterrence.
Going forward, the United States and Japan’s goals should be three-fold: 1)
to proactively engage Taiwan as a valuable partner in efforts to positively shape
a future for the region that is, to paraphrase the 2021 Quad Leaders’ Joint
Statement, free, open, inclusive, and unconstrained by coercion; 75 2) to bolster
Taiwan’s resilience against economic, diplomatic, and other forms of pressure
from Beijing intended to coerce Taipei and/or to shrink its effective auton-
omy; and 3) to raise reputational and other costs of any effort to unilaterally
change the cross-Strait status quo. The U.S. and Japan should pursue these
goals bilaterally, in partnership with Taiwan, and together with coalitions of
other like-minded democracies, within East Asia and beyond.
A maximally effective approach would place Taiwan policy in the context
of a more proactive and comprehensive regional strategy aimed not only at de-
terring aggression but also demonstrating diplomatic, economic, and moral
leadership in support of a positive vision for the region’s future. A key prior-
ity is working bilaterally and assembling multilateral coalitions to, inter alia,
relieve pressure on any targets of PRC coercion—including Taiwan. More
constructive engagement of leading democracies within and beyond the re-
gion (e.g., the European Union; the UK), championing high quality free trade
agreements to raise standards and diversify Taiwan’s economic links, expand-
ing functional cooperation and partnerships, and full-throated promotion of
democratic norms and human rights can also help reduce Taiwan’s vulner-
ability. As Green, Glaser, and Bush argued earlier this year, “Taiwan’s liberal
democracy can only survive in an ecosystem of rules and norms.” 76 U.S. al-
liances, partnerships, and active championing of liberal values are the great-
est comparative advantages Washington has, and are essential to realizing the

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

v­ ision articulated in the March 2021 inaugural Quad Leaders’ and U.S.-Japan
joint statements referenced above.
Specific to Taiwan, it is crucially important for U.S. leaders to differentiate
between “symbolic gestures” and “practical, substantive actions…that would
sustainably improve Taiwan’s security and prosperity.” 77 Both can matter for
real-world outcomes, but the latter is much more likely to have lasting effects.
The United States and Japanese governments should consider the following
policy options:

● Launch parallel, comprehensive inter-agency reviews of Taiwan

policy as part of a more general review of regional strategies aimed
at championing a positive vision; consult and coordinate with each
other informally.

» Both countries are already widely expected to release new national

security strategies within a year. For Japan, this would mark the first
revision since the Abe administration promulgated Japan’s first-ever
national security strategy in 2013.
» Comprehensive inter-agency reviews of Taiwan policy should run
in parallel, and transcend a strict focus on military or defense affairs
by also emphasizing economics, finance, connectivity, intelligence,
disinformation, global health, climate, and other functional issues.
» Tokyo and Washington should consider setting up an informal
bilateral Taiwan working group to consult and coordinate while these
reviews are underway.

● Prioritize substantive cooperation that enhances Taiwan’s security,

prosperity, and resilience against external coercion, and which
proactively engages Taiwan as a valued partner in efforts to positively
shape the region’s “free and open” future.

» As a basic modus operandi, the allies should avoid viewing Taiwan

policy through the prism, or merely as an offshoot, of China policy. In
rhetoric and action, as they pursue a positive agenda beyond deterrence
they should engage Taiwan as a valued partner in its own right.

Adam P. Liff

» Prioritize functional cooperation and efforts to help Taiwan diversify

its political, economic, and (unofficial) diplomatic partnerships across
the region and beyond (especially Australia, Canada, India, and the
EU) as ends in themselves, to reduce China’s economic leverage,
and to increase the reputational and material costs for Beijing of any
brazenly coercive actions against Taiwan or attempts to unilaterally
change the cross-Strait status quo.
» Emphasize policy measures that bolster U.S.-Japan cooperation with
Taiwan on shared regional strategic objectives through the GCTF and
other minilateral and multilateral partnerships.

● Support Taiwan’s efforts to diversify economic links and expand

trilateral and multilateral functional cooperation, including
with partners beyond East Asia, through an expanded Global
Cooperation and Training Framework and other ad-hoc bilateral/
multilateral coalitions.

» The post-2000 surge of Taiwan’s trade and tourism exchanges

with Mainland China has had immense positive benefits, but
diversification of economic links with third parties can help bolster
Taiwan’s resilience against any attempted coercion.
» The U.S. government must come off the sidelines and join Japan as a
proactive champion of regional economic integration and high-quality
free trade. Tokyo and Washington should use their massive economies
(the world’s first- and third-largest) and markets to facilitate the expansion
of Taiwan’s economic and other linkages with them and the wider region.
» This larger effort should include robust support for, and coordination
with, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, pushing forward long-stalled
bilateral FTAs/EPAs, actively supporting Taiwan’s involvement in the
(now) Japan-led CPTPP, and supply chain diversification.
» A U.S.-Taiwan and/or Japan-Taiwan bilateral trade agreement
would facilitate two-way trade and investment, help Taiwan reduce
asymmetric dependence on China, and give other economies (e.g.,
Australia, the EU, and the UK) political cover to pursue similar
agreements with Taiwan.

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

» Regarding CPTPP, Japan’s 2021 chairmanship provides a clear

opportunity to encourage other CPTPP members to constructively
engage with Taiwan. To reduce political resistance in Japan, the Tsai
administration could use executive action to lift the ban on food
imports from areas affected by the 2011 triple disaster.
» If and when the United States seeks to (re-)join CPTPP—as it
should—Washington should use its leverage to support Taiwan’s
entry. As a recent Congressional Research Service report argues, “U.S.
withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 hurt
Taiwan’s ability to join the TPP, an amended agreement, TPP-11, as
well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
that were signed without the United States and Taiwan.” 78
» Expand trilateral cooperation in supporting public and private
financing of infrastructure and energy projects across the Indo-
Pacific, in part by deepening coordination between and synergies with
existing U.S.-Taiwan and U.S.-Japan bilateral/multilateral initiatives.
» Establish/expand trilateral/multilateral working groups within the
GCTF to exchange best practices concerning economic security,
investment screening, 5G, export controls, cyber security, and supply
chain resilience.
» Expand the formal membership and functional reach of the GCTF,
to include close U.S. allies and partners, and to facilitate Taiwan’s
engagement with third parties on various issues of shared concern,
ranging from global health and fisheries management to countering
disinformation and supply chain resilience.
» Pursue expanded cooperation with European partners, many of whom
have become increasingly concerned about Beijing’s behavior and, in at
least a few cases, the potential implications for Taiwan’s autonomy and
democracy, specifically.79 Beyond being ends in themselves, enhanced
ties with other democratic and economic partners will consolidate
a massive regional and global network of stakeholders in Taiwan’s
peaceful and democratic future.

● Establish/expand security dialogues and cooperation in counter-

coercion, collective resilience, non-traditional security, cyber, and

Adam P. Liff


» In terms of indirect security cooperation, the allies should prioritize

shaping the regional context and incentive structure in which cross-
Strait ties play out by continuing the allies’ focus on “networking”
with Indo-Pacific partners “sharing strategic interests” and “common
» Deepen U.S.-Japan bilateral and minilateral (especially with
Australia) planning, exercises, and security cooperation relevant to a
possible cross-Strait contingency, including in the gray zone. Whether
it is publicly referred to as such is less important than actually doing it.
» Include and normalize explicit references to Taiwan and its
importance in U.S.-Japan “2+2” and other joint statements bilaterally
and with other partners. The March 2021 U.S.-Japan statement was
a first step; but the 2020 (U.S.-Australia) AUSMIN joint statement’s
119-word paragraph about Taiwan provides a better example: It
emphasizes Taiwan’s “important role in the Indo-Pacific region”;
Washington and Canberra’s “intent to maintain strong unofficial ties
with Taiwan and to support Taiwan’s membership in international
organizations” (or as an observer where statehood is a condition);
“that recent events only strengthened the [allies’] resolve to support
Taiwan;” and “that any resolution of cross-Strait differences” should
take place free of threats or coercion.81
» Gradually expand trilateral and multilateral dialogues; e.g., to
facilitate discussions about functional security cooperation in
nontraditional security, intelligence, and cyber

● Significantly expand funding to support bilateral/trilateral Track

1.5 and Track 2 dialogues, as well as scholarly/academic/student
exchanges—especially among the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.

» Actively organize and/or provide financial support for more trilateral

Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues, research projects, academic
consortia, and exchanges to share knowledge and deepen professional
networks among United States, Japanese, and Taiwanese policy

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

practitioners, legislators/staff, and scholars—especially among those

with diverse expertise on and interest in cross-Strait dynamics,
Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-Japan-Taiwan relations, U.S. regional
alliances, and the Quad.
» Encourage U.S. and Japanese universities to establish more bilateral/
trilateral student and researcher exchange programs with Taiwanese
counterparts, and provide financial support for their efforts.


Since President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 election, Beijing has significantly increased
military, economic, diplomatic, and other forms of coercive pressure on demo-
cratic Taiwan, including efforts to “shrink” its international space—even freez-
ing it out of the World Health Assembly during a global pandemic. Coupled
with a Taiwanese public today that favors the status quo and overwhelmingly
rejects unification w ith t he PRC on B eijing’s t erms, t he r isks o f a reduction i n
Taiwan’s effective autonomy and a cross-Strait crisis have both grown.
Though most of the focus in Washington has been on U.S. policy,
Japan-Taiwan relations are also a very important variable with significant
implications for both Taiwan’s and the region’s future. Yet relative to their
central impor-tance for U.S. strategy and shared status as “frontline”
democratic U.S. partners, extensive, if “unofficial,” relations between Japan and
Taiwan attract remarkably little direct attention from the U.S. policy
community. This is unfortunate.
Japan is Taiwan’s second most important international partner after the
United States. Though relations remain “unofficial,” as they have been since
1972, recent years have witnessed a significant expansion of Japan-Taiwan ex-
changes and deepening of practical cooperation, both bilaterally and in con-
cert with Washington. This solid foundation of extensive ties, shared demo-
cratic values, deep economic links, and robust people-to-people exchange
provide a solid foundation and new opportunities for expanded cooperation
bilaterally and in partnership with the United States and its other regional
(e.g., Australia; India) and extra-regional (e.g., the UK, the EU) partners.
Their goals should be three-fold: 1) to proactively engage Taiwan as a valuable

Adam P. Liff

partner in efforts to positively shape the region’s “free and open” future; 2) to
bolster Taiwan’s resilience against economic, diplomatic, and other forms of
pressure from Beijing intended to coerce Taipei and/or to shrink its effective
autonomy; and 3) to raise reputational and other costs of any effort to unilat-
erally change the cross-Strait status quo.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

Adam P. Liff thanks Richard Bush, Abe Denmark, Ryan Hass, and Lucas
Myers for helpful feedback at earlier stages of the project.

1. Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan a renagade province to be “reunified” with the
mainland, by force if necessary. “反分裂国家法”(全国人民代表大会, March 14, 2005),
2. Surveys for this particular poll began in December 1994. “臺灣民眾統獨立場趨勢分佈
(1994年12月~2020年12月),” 國立政治大學選舉研究中心, January 25, 2021, https://esc.
3. Stephen Biegun, “Remarks at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum,”
Department of State (blog), August 31, 2020,
4. Richard C. Bush, “From Persuasion to Coercion: Beijing’s Approach to Taiwan and Taiwan’s
Response,” Brookings (blog), November 18, 2019,
5. 鈴木けいすけ, “WHO総会そして台湾の総統就任式,” 政治家 鈴木けいす
けの国政日々雑感 (blog), May 21, 2020,
6. “Japan Official, Calling Taiwan ‘red Line,’ Urges Biden to ‘Be Strong,’” Reuters, December
26, 2020,
7. 防衛省. “「第89回 安全保障・防衛に関するオタワ会議」岸防衛大臣スピーチ,”
March 13, 2021.
html; a “provisional translation” is available here: Ministry of Defense. “Keynote Speech by
Defense Minister Kishi at the 89th Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence,” March 13,
8. United States Department of State. “U.S.-Japan Joint Press Statement,” March 16, 2021.

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

9. White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December
2017, 2, 25,
Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf; “河野防衛相「中国は安全保障上の脅威」,” 朝日新聞デジ
タル, September 10, 2020,
html; Antony J. Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin III, “America’s Partnerships Are ‘Force
Multipliers’ in the World,” Washington Post, March 14, 2021, http://www.washingtonpost.
10. The White House. “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’” March
12, 2021.
11. Robert M. Gates, “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs,
August 2020,
12. Bonnie S. Glaser, “Time for Collective Pushback against China’s Economic
Coercion,” CSIS, January 13, 2021,
13. MOFA, “Japan-U.S. Security Treaty,” January 19, 1960,
14. Ibid.
15. The White House, “President Donald J. Trump Is Strengthening Ties, Improving Trade, and
Deepening Our Global Partnership with Japan,” The White House, April 26, 2019, https://
improving-trade-deepening-global-partnership-japan/. For a Biden Administration update,
see United States Department of State. “U.S.-Japan Joint Press Statement.”
16. American Institute in Taiwan, “Remarks by AIT Director Brent Christensen at the Opening of
GCTF Workshop,” October 18, 2018,
17. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japan), “Diplomatic Bluebook 2020,” 2020, 58, https://www.
18. White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”
19. Various metrics prove this point. For example, between 1986 and 1992, Taiwan’s Polity
score improved from -7 (autocracy) to +7 (democracy), and since 2004 Taiwan has tied
Japan for the top score in Asia (+10 of 10). “GovData360: Revised Combined Polity Score,”
GovData360, accessed January 12, 2021,
20. CNBC, “Asia’s Top-Performing Economy in 2020 Could Grow Even Faster This Year,”
February 23, 2021,
21. South China Morning Post, “Taiwan’s Coronavirus Success Holds Lessons for Struggling
US,” January 7, 2021,
22. Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Aram Hur, “Why Taiwan’s Assistance to Hong Kong
Matters,” Foreign Policy (blog), July 2, 2020,

Adam P. Liff

23. “2020 Index of Economic Freedom,” The Heritage Foundation, accessed January 16,
“Economic Freedom (2018 Data),” Fraser Institute, accessed January 16, 2021, https://
24. National Development Council, “Taiwan Statistical Data Book” (Taipei: National
Development Council (ROC), 2019), 220–24,
25. JETRO, “2019” (Japan External Trade Organization, 2020),
26. United States Census Bureau, “Top Trading Partners,” December 2019, https://www.census.
27. Adam P. Liff, “‘Self-Restraint’ with Japanese Characteristics,” Asia Maritime Transparency
Initiative, March 10, 2016,
28. Ryan Hass, “Hold the Faith on Taiwan’s Future,” Brookings (blog), October 23, 2019, https://
29. For example. 2020 saw more PLA operations within Taiwan’s ADIZ since the 1995–1996
Taiwan Strait Crisis, and the highest frequency of long-distance training missions ever. “2020
中共政軍發展評估報告” (財團法人國防安全研究院, December 30, 2020), 74, https://
30. Rush Doshi, “China Steps Up Its Information War in Taiwan,” Foreign Affairs,
January 15, 2020,
31. Xi Jinping, “在《告台湾同胞书》发表40周年纪念会上的讲话,” Xinhua, January 2,
32. David Stilwell, “The United States, Taiwan, and the World: Partners for Peace and
Prosperity,” Department of State (blog), August 31, 2020,
33. Tsai, Ing-wen (@iingwen), June 30, 2020.
34. 防衛省. “「第89回 安全保障・防衛に関するオタワ会議」岸防衛大臣スピーチ.”
35. “‘Stronger Together’: Taiwan Foreign Minister Urges New Alliance against China,”
The Guardian, December 7, 2020.
36. Madoka Fukuda, “Japan-Taiwan Relations in the Second Term of the Tsai Presidency,” Public
Jurist, September 2020, 26.
37. Yasuhiro Matsuda, “Taiwan in the China-Japan-US Triangle,” in Getting the Triangle
Straight: Managing China-Japan-US Relations, ed. Gerald Curtis, Ryosei Kokubun, and Jisi
Wang (Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2010): 123–24, 134.
38. A notable exception is: Jeffrey W. Hornung, “Strong but Constrained Japan-

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

Taiwan Ties,” Brookings, March 13, 2018,

39. 松田康博, “安定化する中台関係下で展開する日台関係ー2008-16年,” in 日台関係
史 1945-2020, ed. 川島真 et al. (東京大学出版会, 2020).
40. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japan), “Diplomatic Bluebook 2020,” 58.
41. “外交青書2012” (東京: 外務省, 2012), 52,
42. 松田, “安定化する中台関係下,” 244–46.
43. “亞協會長李嘉進高調透露 在日首相官邸會官房長官,” 自由時報電子報, August 12,
44. 松田, “安定化する中台関係下,” 244–46.
45. 清水麗, “「失われた好機」と深化する積み上げ式実務関係,” in 日台関係史 1945-
2020, ed. 川島真 et al. (東京大学出版会, 2020), 271–72.
46. “第一屆「臺日海洋事務合作對話會議」順利舉行,” 中華民國外交部, November 1,
A98FD%26s%3d6BDA5E27242B273C; 清水, “安定化する中台関係下,” 267.
47. “沿革,” 臺灣日本關係協會, January 28, 2021,
48. “組團弔唁李登輝 日議員盼日本高官未來能訪台,” 中央社 CNA, August 19, 2020, https://; 清水, “安定化する中台関係下,” 277.
49. For example, in 2019 Japan formally joined the theretofore bilateral U.S.-Taiwan
Global Cooperation and Training Framework (全球合作暨訓練架構; est. 2015).
MFA (ROC), “Joint Statement on the 5th Anniversary of the Global Cooperation
and Training Framework,” June 1, 2020,
50. “U.S. Relations with Taiwan: Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet,” United States Department of
State, August 31, 2018,
51. “Remarks by AIT Director.”
52. National Development Council, “Taiwan Statistical Data Book,” 220–24; JETRO, “2019.”
53. “2018年度対日世論調査” (日本台湾交流協会, February 2019),
Portals/0/culture/%E4%B8%96%E8%AB%96/2018_seron_kani_ JP.pdf; “台湾に対する
意識調査” (中央調査社, December 2019),
54. Taiwan News, “Taiwan Welcomes Record 2 Million Japanese Tourists in 2019,” Taiwan
News, January 7, 2020,
55. “日本の観光統計データ,” 日本政府観光局, 2020,
56. “Taiwan President Calls for Cooperation in Face of Beijing’s Threats,” Taiwan News,
December 8, 2020,
57. Joseph R. Biden Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, April 2020.
58. Joseph Biden, “More Prosperous Future For Our Families,” 世界新聞網 [World Journal],
October 22, 2020,

Adam P. Liff

59. “外交部:台灣爭取加入CPTPP 日方態度開放歡迎,” 中央社 CNA, January 3, 2021,
60. “中國擬加入CPTPP 日相菅義偉直言目前有困難,” 中央社 CNA, January 3, 2021,
61. “Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy: Deepening Taiwan’s Regional Integration,” Center for
Strategic & International Studies, July 2019,
62. “安倍前首相に訪台要請 台湾立法委員,” 産経新聞, October 13, 2020, https://www.
63. Adam P. Liff, “A ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ for Japan?,” Asia Dispatches (blog), February 25,
64. “自民、強まる台湾重視 政策チーム新設で関係強化提言,” 日本経済新聞, March 4,
65. Liff, “A ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ for Japan?”
66. Tse-Kang Leng and Nien-chung Chang Liao, “Hedging, Strategic Partnership, and Taiwan’s
Relations with Japan Under the Ma Ying-Jeou Administration,” Pacific Focus 31, no. 3 (2016):
67. “台湾との交流促進 関係法策定を確認 自民有志議員,” 産経新聞, February 18,
68. “More Taiwan-Japan Security, Military Exchanges Urged,” The China Post, July 1, 2014,
69. “蔡英文総統、日本に安保対話要請,” 産経新聞, March 2, 2019, https://www.sankei.
70. Liff, “A ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ for Japan?”
71. US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, “Joint Statement” (MOFA, February 19, 2005),
72. An insightful recent English-language examination of these issues is Yasuhiro Matsuda,
“The Strategic Impact of the Taiwan Issue on the U.S.-Japan Alliance” (Japanese
Views on China and Taiwan: Implications for U.S.-Japan Alliance, Washington,
D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018), https://csis-website-
73. United States Department of State. “U.S.-Japan Joint Press Statement”; Kyodo News+.
“Japan, U.S. Defense Chiefs Affirm Cooperation over Taiwan Emergency,” March 21, 2021.
74. “Taiwan Ban on Japanese Food Looks Set to Stay,” Japan Times, December 8, 2020, https://
75. “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement.”
76. Michael J. Green, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Richard C. Bush, “Pompeo’s 11th Hour Change
in Taiwan Policy Does Taipei No Favors,” CSIS, January 15, 2021,
77. Abraham M. Denmark, “A Return to Substance Over Symbolism,” May 14, 2018, https://

Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

78. Karen M Sutter, “U.S.-Taiwan Trade Relations,” In Focus (Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Research Service, December 23, 2020),
79. “Isolated Diplomatically by China, Taiwan Is Finding Friends in Europe,” Voice of America,
October 18, 2019,
taiwan-finding-friends-europe; “EU-Taiwan Investment Forum Signals Warmer Ties amid
China Chill,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 22, 2020,
chill2; “MOFA Thanks European Parliament for Resolutions Supporting Taiwan,” Taiwan
Today, November 30, 2020,
80. “Foreign Policy Speech by Foreign Minister Kono to the 198th Session of the Diet,”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, January 28, 2019,
81. “Joint Statement on Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2020,”
United States Department of State (blog), July 28, 2020,


Understanding China’s
Governance Space around
Personal Data

Xiao Liu is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow and an

Assistant Professor at McGill University.
Xiao Liu

This paper studies the hyperactive governance space around personal data
protection in China. I argue that the recent official unveiling of the Personal
Information Protection Law resonated with a hyperactive field of media atten-
tion, public discourses, and legal actions of citizens around personal information
protection, involving actors including not only the central legislative body, but
also government agencies of different departments and at the local level, as well
as by civil society organizations and conscious citizens. The broad governance
space I discuss here emphasizes the multiplicity and interactions of actors and
mechanisms as well as the competition and negotiation between a variety of roles
and interests, which is differentiated from data regulation that focuses on state-
centered actions. I will discuss the trials of three recent civil lawsuits, one litigated
against the use of facial recognition in consumer space, the other two against
improper personal information collection and processing by big tech companies.
These cases, while demonstrating the conscious actions that citizens took to am-
plify the public effects of personal information protection, also provide concrete
examples and an opportunity to reflect on the limits of current data privacy pro-
tection that centers upon individualized control and self-management.

Policy Implications:
● Chinese state and non-state actors are motivated to develop strategies and
policies for personal data protection.

● Data protection concerns the interests of myriad social actors and agents.
This will require a multistakeholder approach to actively involve the
variety of actors, from different levels of governments and corporations to
civil society organizations and citizens, in the governance space of data.

● It is increasingly recognized that a diversity of strategies and approaches

are needed to complement the self-management mode of personal data
protection in order to effectively protect privacy and serve public interests
under the conditions of big data analytics, as the self-management mode
places an unrealistic burden on individuals to protect their own data, and
is not very efficient for data management and data use.

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

On October 21, 2020, China’s highly anticipated Personal Information

Protection Law (Draft) was released for public comments. Along with
Cybersecurity Law implemented in 2017, the Data Security Law (Draft also
released for public comments in July 2020), the issuance of the Personal
Information Protection Law (Draft) is regarded as a major milestone within
China’s legislative efforts to establish comprehensive and systemic regulations
of data. Particularly, PIPL establishes lawful rights around personal informa-
tion, as it is formulated to “protect personal information rights and interests,
standardize personal information handling activities, safeguard the lawful,
orderly, and free flow of personal information, and stimulate reasonable uses
of personal information” (Article 1).1 Commentators and data policy profes-
sionals quickly noticed that many provisions of the Draft PIPL resemble the
European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and other major data
legislation in other jurisdictions. Interestingly, in contrast to the heated dis-
cussions of the draft PIPL within China among academics, law professionals,
as well as the industrial sector who are eager to find out the impact of PIPL on
businesses, few reports on the Personal Information Law appeared in major
news outlets in the United States. With rising concerns over personal infor-
mation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent conflicts over the issue
of cross-border data flows and data security between the United States and
the EU and other jurisdictions, 2 the silence shows the gap in the U.S. public’s
understanding of the global data governance landscape, as well as the urgent
need for international conversation and collaboration on data governance.
China’s unveiling of PIPL is part of China’s legislative and regulatory moves
in recent years to establish the legal foundations, guidelines, and standards for
data governance, of which personal data protection is an indispensable com-
ponent. In contrast to the common perception of China’s lax data regulation,
which was often leveraged by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for the argument
that regulating personal data would prevent data-intensive innovations, the
Chinese government in fact has moved fast to set up a comprehensive frame-
work with hundreds of laws and rules for data security and protection. Before
the unveiling of the PIPL, Chinese government had already issued a variety
of regulations and laws that address the issues of personal data protection in
different realms, such as the Consumer Protection Law and its Amendments
(2014), Personal Information Security Specification (2018), Regulation on

Xiao Liu

the Protection of Children’s Personal Information Online (2019) and others.

While Western audiences may be more familiar with stories of the use of high-
tech surveillance and the controversial social credit system, which raise wor-
ries over whether China’s data privacy model would threaten the core values
of Western democracy,3 it is crucial to recognize that China is tackling similar
challenges arising from the rapid deployment of information and communi-
cation technology (ICT) and the necessity of governing gigantic amounts of
data generated from daily economic and social activities.
As data is increasingly regarded as fundamental to national and regional
economies, governments around the world are striving to boost economic de-
velopment with data-driven innovations. Unsurprisingly, the development of
legal and regulatory foundations for data protection and security also moved
to the top of government agenda, as can be observed in the flurry of data
protection legislation following the EU’s GDPR in other countries. China’s
legislative efforts around personal information also arose from the rapid
datafication processes and an urgent need to build up the regulatory norms
of data collection, transmission, processing and usage. Data has become a
paramount issue tied to the government’s dual goals of economic growth and
political stability.
In this paper, I will first show that establishing norms and rules over data
collection and usage has always been an integral part of the Chinese govern-
ment’s data strategy. The unveiling of the PIPL draft was prepared by previous
legislation and policymaking. Yet rather than perceiving this as the result of
monolithic state power, I argue that the making of the PIPL resonated with
a hyperactive field of media attention, public discourses, and legal actions of
citizens around personal information protection, involving actors including
not only the central legislative body but also government agencies of different
departments and at the local level, as well as by civil society organizations and
citizens. As I will show in this paper, even before the release of the PIPL, there
was a public discourse about the urgency to deal with the personal informa-
tion crisis. With mounting concerns over the risks of financial scams and social
security resulted from the abuse of personal data, the accelerated legislation
over data protection emerges from the confluence and negotiations of different
forces and social agents that involve businesses and the private sector, different
levels of government, academics and legal professionals, and the general public

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

striving to define the cybersystem. Then, I will discuss the trials of three recent
civil lawsuits, one litigated against the use of facial recognition in consumer
space, the other two against improper personal information collection and pro-
cessing by big tech companies. These cases, while demonstrating the conscious
actions that citizens took to amplify the public effects of personal information
protection, also show the courts’ careful consideration in balancing different
interests around data, and defining the proper boundary of personal informa-
tion protection. Relating this to the conceptual and practical challenges in reg-
ulating personally identifiable data globe wide, I argue that the Chinese courts’
strategy of tackling these challenges also provide concrete examples and an op-
portunity to reflect on the limits of current data protection that centers upon
individualized control and self-management. In other words, on the one hand,
China’s legal framework for personal information protection consulted and
in many ways resembles the GDPR and the approaches adopted in the recent
wave of global data protection legislation; on the other hand, it is also faced
with similar challenges shared elsewhere.
While much attention has been drawn to the extraterritorial application
of China’s data regulation and the aspect of cross-border data flows, here I
want to focus exclusively on the internal drivers and practical challenges of
data protection, which has been rarely discussed so far. The broad governance
space I discuss here emphasizes the multiplicity and interactions of actors and
mechanisms as well as the competition and negotiation between a variety of
roles and interests, which is differentiated from data regulation that focuses
on state-centered actions.4 This will draw a more concrete and fuller picture of
China’s data governance scenario, which I hope contributes to potential con-
versation and collaboration in this area of mounting importance.

Data Protection as Part of Data Strategy

President Xi Jinping’s government has placed a high priority on the develop-
ment of big data, AI, and cloud computing technology.5 In 2015, at its fifth
plenary session, the 18th CPC Central Committee unveiled a national big
data strategy, which promotes accelerating the use of big-data technologies
to boost economic growth and improve governance. In recognition of the
role of data in economy, the CCP leadership in 2019 listed data as one of

Xiao Liu

the “factors of production” along with land, labor, capital, and technology.
Recently, the State Council issued guidelines for accelerating the develop-
ment of a data market and market-based allocation of data as one major
“factor of production.”6 With the investment in information infrastructure,
along with institutional and financial support in big-data research and in-
novation, data governance also constitutes an essential component of this
big data strategy. Xi himself stressed the urgency for research on the global
conventions and norms of data regulation.7
The Chinese government’s plan for data-related legislation started even be-
fore Xi’s leadership. According to Zhou Hanhua, an information law expert
at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was in charge of the expert
draft of the PIPL, the preparation and drafting of the PIPL started as early
as 2003 under the directorship of the then-State Council Information Office
(the predecessor of the now Cyberspace Administration of China).8
Various regulatory measures on personal data had appeared in the form
of guidelines, specifications, or amendments to existing laws, which laid the
foundation for the eventual unveiling of the PIPL.9 For example, the 2005,
2009, 2015 amendments to the Criminal law added provisions on illegal ac-
quisition and sale of credit and personal information, and defined the liabil-
ity of personal information leaking resulted from inadequate cybersecurity
management; the 2017 General Provisions of Civil Law added an article on
the protection of personal information of natural persons and the forbid-
ding of illegal collection, usage, processing, and transmission of personal
information. The civil-law protection of personal information and privacy
also appears in the newly minted Civil Code that was passed in May 2020.
There are also other area and sector-specific regulations and security stan-
dards, such as the Regulations for the Protection of Personal Information of
Telecommunication and Internet Users issued by the Ministry of Industry
and Information issued in 2013. Such measures are seen as crucial to sup-
port the booming digital economy of China. As Zhou Hanhua succinctly
points out:

The misuses of personal information would lead to the pollution of

the information pool, and eventually the devaluation of information
as a resource (for economic development). If netizens lost confidence

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

in i­ nternet networks (because of the lack of protection of personal in-

formation), our e-business and e-governance would be built on shifting
sand (without a solid foundation).10

The legislation around personal information, therefore, concerns not only

individual rights but also economic vitality and governance soundness, espe-
cially given that internet users in China have grown to more than 900 million
and internet penetration reached 64.5 percent in 2020, with online shopping,
online education, and livestreams becoming the hot spots of the e-economy.11
With the rapid digitization of government and financial services, rapid expan-
sion of online commerce, and the large numbers of active social media users
on platforms such as WeChat and Douyin, the challenges of data security and
protection have become increasingly severe. While new technologies are em-
braced and adopted quickly for new business opportunities and governance
efficiency, the evaluation of risks and measures to mitigate risks often lag be-
hind until problems have appeared.
In this regard, it is inaccurate to see China’s personal information protection
simply as a zero-sum game between the surveillance power of the state and citi-
zen rights, as missing in this binary framework is an understanding of the role
of the state in sustaining and stimulating economy growth, and the intercon-
nection between its economic drive and its regulatory measures. In fact, what
emerged constantly in the debate is whether “over-strident” data regulations
would restrict technological and business innovations, an argument familiar to
policy makers and frequently mobilized by Silicon Valley and corporations in
the United States. Governments around the world have also been trying hard
to find a best-balanced approach to data security and protection in a way to im-
prove rather than sacrifice data utility. For this reason, it is not surprising that
the legislation of the PIPL took a decade before its final unveiling, and this hap-
pened only when the internet-based businesses in China had eventually come
to maturity and the misuses of personal information had increasingly appeared
as disruptive to the market order and social stability.
As commentators have noticed, the PIPL (Draft) resembles the GDPR in
many ways. Similar to the GDRP’s definition of personal data, the PIPL de-
fines personal information as “any information which are related to an identi-
fied or identifiable nature person” excluding anonymous data—although, in

Xiao Liu

reality, the boundary of personal data and nonpersonal data often gets blurred
because of big data analytics. The GDPR also provides six legal bases for the
processing of personal information, which is commonly interpreted as a flex-
ibility to balance with the necessity of data processing and other legitimate
interests. The PIPL also provides six, not completely identical, bases for legiti-
mate processing, and it emphasizes the importance of balancing data protec-
tion with the digital economy and innovation. Similar to the GDPR, the PIPL
has provisions that give the information subject the right not to be subject to
a decision solely based on automated processing, as well as the right to know,
right to rectification, to erasure, etc. This shows that the drafting of the PIPL
follows closely recent global advances in data protection. Such attention to the
global trends intersected with internal drivers in the hyperactive space around
personal data protection, which involves both intensive public attention and
discourse, and the conscious actions of informed individuals who have a good
knowledge of the global developments in data governance.

Hyperactive Discourse of Personal Information Crisis

But instead of focusing merely on state regulations, this article foregrounds
the social space around data governance, as a singular focus on the legislative
moves of the central government would end up reducing the complicated set
of issues that concern the interests of a broad range of social actors into the
outcome of a monolithic state power. In many ways, the actions and expres-
sion of interests by social agents and actors active in this space are intercon-
nected with state policy moves, in the sense that they often form positive
feedback loops to amplify the urgency of data protection in media and create
hyperactive discourse around personal information protection.
A landmark incident for the formation of such a hyperactive space is the
tragic death of a teenage girl named Xu Yuyu in 2016. The 18-year-old girl died
of a heart attack after falling victim to a telephone scam and being swindled
out of 9900 yuan, the fund her family raised for her college tuition.12 The girl’s
death ignited anger over rampant leaking and illegal trading of personal infor-
mation, as netizens started to question where and how the scammers acquired
Xu’s personal information, including not only her contact information, but
details of her financial aid application from the local education department

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

for her college education. The incident triggered vocal expressions of accu-
mulated distrust on some government departments, which had been lagging
behind in implementing security measures to protect the gigantic amount of
personal data collected in their hands. Southern Metropolis Daily urged that
there should be a “Xu Yuyu Act” in order to address the lack of specific legisla-
tion and the weak law-enforcement over personal information protection.13
Xu Yuyu was not the only victim of telecommunication scams. Frequent
media exposés of telecommunication scams around the time of Xu’s death
showed that the victims ranged from less-tech savvy and less-privileged so-
cial groups such as elders and college students, to more sophisticated college
professors.14 According to Xinhua news, 90 percent of the telecommunication
scams were precisely targeted plots.15 Reports on an underground industry
and networks specialized in the stealing and trading of personal information
generated pervasive public anxieties over the security of personal data.16 Not
long after Xu Yuyu’s tragic death, local law enforcement departments across
the country cracked multiple cases concerning illegal trading of trillions of
pieces of personal information, including bank information, social media ac-
counts, and medical information, all organized through highly-coordinated
networks of data hacking and sale. Later that year, in the amendments to the
General Provisions of the Civil Law, an article regarding the protection of per-
sonal information was added, which was commonly regarded as a response to
the rampant personal information leaking and financial scams.17 The media
and public outcry triggered by the Xu Yuyu case could be seen as the culmina-
tion of the crisis arising from the challenges of governing the unprecedented
amount of data generated from rapid digitization and datafication.
Indeed, the Xu Yuyu case created a hyperactive field with intensive media
coverage, social media discourses, active engagement by legal professionals
and common citizens, as well as reactions from different levels of government
agencies, all of which makes personal information protection a social concern
of high visibility. Facial recognition technology is a good example. While
Western media mainly focus on the use of facial recognition technology by
the Chinese government as a surveillance tool, facial recognition should also
be considered in the context of the continuous use of biometric information,
such as fingerprinting, by modern nation-states since the 19th century to
govern increasingly mobile populations.18 As legal scholar Hu Ling points

Xiao Liu

out, facial recognition is an extension of the modern state and institutions’

long-term management of identity authentication that is, how to verify indi-
vidual identities for the purpose of census-taking, registration, and access to
services, welfare, and other resources.19 Officially-issued personal IDs, such
as driver licenses and national ID cards and China’s hukou registration, have
been mediating interactions between individuals and institutions.20 Facial
recognition technology became appealing to government and institutions in
this context because of its perceived power to provide an efficient solution
for identity authentication across different scenarios and for tracking popu-
lation movement through the collection and the synthesizing of data across
space and time. The use of facial recognition is not limited to airports and
other security surveillance systems, but increasingly in financial and bank-
ing systems. Since 2017, large banks such as China Construction Bank, Bank
of Communications, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank started to deploy
facial recognition for identity authentication at their ATMs and for payment
and other services. 21 As technology companies such as Alibaba and Tencent
entered the competition for mobile payments with Alipay and WeChat pay-
ment, 22 facial recognition was marketed in the commercial battle to fuel the
fantasy of a seamless consumer experience as an ultra-smart payment method
that is card-free and device-free.
But facial recognition soon exposed its security vulnerabilities. It was re-
ported that fake, synthesized 3D images of human faces were used to hack
Alipay accounts.23 The face-swapping app “Zao” also triggered severe criticism
for its controversial user privacy agreement, and deep concerns over the se-
curity of facial-recognition based payment systems emerged.24 Media reports
continuously invoked the metaphor of DNA to equate the biometric features
of human faces with the unique identity of individuals and cautioned against
an irrecoverable and irreversible loss of personal identity should that infor-
mation be stolen.25 These public sentiments and anxieties prompted relevant
government departments to prioritize the creation of standards for the use
of facial recognition in finance.26 Small and middle-sized organizations with
limited financial capacity and technology expertise also found themselves
struggling to handle the challenges of data security.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, continuous reports of the leaking of the
personal information of people who had travel history to Wuhan or who had

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

been tested positive for the coronavirus escalated public concern over indi-
vidual privacy. The leaks often took place at the level of local and neighbor-
hood registration, where staff who assisted collecting such information dis-
seminated it improperly through Chinese social media and caused unwanted
trouble for individuals involved. Other leaks originated from hospitals and
medical institutes, where some associated staff initially shared without discre-
tion patients’ individual information in a small circle of their personal con-
tacts on WeChat but the information soon became circulated widely.27
Mixed with the public fear of the coronavirus, such leaking was often driven
by irrational panic, which in turn fueled the viral spread of even irrelevant
personal details. As contact tracing requires tracking down all recent contacts
of the infected person, sometimes even the family and friends of the contact
who had not been tested positive became victims of personal information
leaking and suffered from harassment due to the improper exposure of their
information.28 Frequent media reports of such incidents generated heated dis-
cussion on the proper balance between the public right to know in a public
health crisis and the protection of personal information, which pushed to the
foreground the need for clearer regulations on personal information collec-
tion and handling. The Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission
therefore issued a notice urging relevant parties to follow closely the Personal
Information Security Specification, which was released as a national standard
in 2018 and updated several times afterwards.29 In this context, the unveiling
of the Personal Information Protection Law undoubtedly attracted even more
attention amid the public apprehension of personal information crisis.
Relevant government departments had launched multiple “targeted cam-
paigns” (专项整治zhuanxiang zhengzhi) against illegal collection and trad-
ing of personal data. Following the Xu Yuyu incident, in response to the
public fury towards telecommunication scams, law enforcements tightened
up regulations around telecommunication services, worked along with the
major network providers, telecommunication operators, banks, and finan-
cial institutions to deploy telephone-scam prevention technologies and crack
down on underground networks of data hacking and trading.30 The Ministry
of Industry and Information Technology also launched multiple campaigns
against online apps that “infringed upon users’ rights,” which include infor-
mation collection or use beyond proper scope, illegal third-party sharing,

Xiao Liu

and other issues.31 Since 2019, the MIIT has conducted inspections of over
620,000apps and requested more than 2,200 apps correct their irregularities
in collecting and processing personal information.32
As researchers have pointed out, campaign-style enforcement is a common
strategy for Chinese government and Communist Party officials to respond
to publicly perceived crisis, such as food safety and environmental pollution,
and sometimes in advance of laws to address the crisis at hand, such as inter-
net finance frauds, in cases where no existing laws existed to address issues
arising from the rapid technological and institutional changes around inter-
net finance.33 Similarly, in the area of personal information protection, the
launch of these campaigns responded to growing public concerns, even in the
absence of a comprehensive personal information protection law. Campaign-
style enforcement often involves, as some scholars observe, the “extraordi-
nary mobilization of administrative resources under political sponsorship to
achieve a specific policy target within a defined period of time.”34 These cam-
paigns against personal information abuses functioned in this way to adjust
the digital ecosystem, which can be an effective means of addressing the is-
sues of low efficiency and high cost of personal information violation lawsuits
by individuals.
One effect of such campaigns in data protection was the creation of a hy-
peractive field in which a variety of actors and players from different levels
of government agencies to non-state actors could react and participate, which
in turn further enhanced the hypervisibility of the social discourse around
personal information protection. In this hyperactive space, some local govern-
ments were taking measures to make and pilot regional data regulations. For
example, Shenzhen recently established itself as a pioneer of data governance,
and released its draft of local Data Protection Regulation in July 2020 for
public comments. The event itself generated heated discussion on a number
of controversial issues, including data ownership, and the impact of local data
regulation on the formation of a national data market.
Besides these government actors, law firms, legal practitioners, researchers,
universities, and media professionals also actively contributed to this highly
active field. Since 2016, the Southern Metropolis Daily’s Personal Information
Protection Research Center has been conducting in-depth investigations on
the most concerning issues of personal information, such as facial recognition

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

and the privacy evaluation of apps and websites. It has been releasing yearly
reports on the state of personal information security and opened hotlines and
social media channels for the public to report incidents of personal informa-
tion violations. Public accounts on WeChat and other social media platforms
also distributed regular updates on national and international data policy
trends, research, data leaking incidents, and others. In sum, personal informa-
tion protection had already become a hyperactive field by the time of the PIPL
(draft)’s official unveiling in 2020.

The First Civil Lawsuit Against Facial Recognition

Amid such intense media and public attention, several lawsuits put to the
test the delicate and challenging balance in implementing personal data
protection. In October of 2019, Guo Bing, a professor of Zhejiang Sci-Tech
University sued Hangzhou Safari Park for its use of facial recognition at
the park entry.35 Guo, an annual pass holder of the park, received a message
informing him that the park’s entry authentication system had been “up-
graded” to a facial recognition system and the former system based on finger-
print had been retired. When verifying with the park, Guo was told that his
membership would be deactivated if he refused to accept the terms of facial
recognition-based identity authentication system at the entry, and the park
would not refund him the membership fee. Unable to reach an agreement
with the park, Guo brought the case to the court. Touted as the “first lawsuit
against facial recognition” by news and social media, the case received ex-
tensive attention and discussion. In media interviews, Guo cautioned against
rampant uses of facial recognition. He expressed his worry that the biometric
information collected through facial recognition, once leaked or mishandled,
could cause severe personal and property damage. His original litigation re-
quest was mainly a full refund of his membership payment (1360 Yuan, ap-
proximately $200 USD) from the park. Halfway through the process, Guo
and his lawyers changed the request to a much broader set that included the
annulling of notices that the zoo sent to its customers regarding fingerprint
and facial recognition-based authentication systems and the deletion of his
personal information that the zoo had collected. Such requests resonated
with the globe-wide discussion on the right of the data subject to request the

Xiao Liu

erasure of his personal information from the data controller, which is speci-
fied in the GDPR and commonly referred to as the right to be forgotten. It
should also be noted that Guo expanded his request to question the legality
of fingerprint information collection, to which he had already given consent
when initially purchasing the membership. As he was building his argument
on the sensitive nature of biometric information, and fingerprinting also col-
lects biometric information, this request was more likely a performative one
to call attention to the management of biometric information.
In court, Guo’s lawyers mainly resorted to the Consumer Rights Protection
Law, arguing that the single-party changes made by the park to the contract vio-
lated the consumer’s legal rights and interests. As the drafting of the PIPL was
still in process, when it comes to the park’s improper collection of personal in-
formation, they primarily cited relevant stipulations from the Cybersecurity
Law effective in 2017 and the Personal Information Security Specification
(GB/T 35273-2017 信息安全技术个人信息安全规范), a national stan-
dard released by the Standardization Administration of China in 2018. The
defendant, the Safari Park, argued that the purpose of adopting facial recogni-
tion was to improve its customers’ experience by reducing the long wait times
for entry and fixing malfunctions arising from previous fingerprint-based
authentication, and therefore these practices should be seen as a reasonable
business practice. Furthermore, the defender argued that the collection of
personal information was based on the consent that Guo had given when he
adopted his membership. His consent, as with that of other users who made
the choice under similar circumstances, was a voluntary choice to utilize his
personal information in exchange for economic benefits: the discount Guo
enjoyed through the membership.
The court trial took place on June 15, 2020, but the judicial decision was
deferred, and remained unannounced until late November. The court stated
that existing regulations do not forbid the collection and use of personal in-
formation in commercial and business settings but rather emphasize proper,
legitimate processes based on consent and security measures. In its specific
decision, the court maneuvered a balance between Guo’s requests regarding
his individual case and his broader requests regarding the legitimacy of the
Park’s collection of biometric information. On the one hand, it ruled against
the changes the park made to its contract with Guo, and therefore invalidated

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

the applicability of the park’s new facial recognition-based authentication sys-

tem to Guo. On the other hand, it defended the validity of the park’s new
entry rules for its new customers, based on the standard that the new custom-
ers would have to give consent to the park when enrolling in its membership.
In regard of Guo’s request of deletion of personal information, the court ruled
that the park should delete Guo’s biometric information collected through
photography at the time of his enrollment, as it was conducted without Guo’s
full consent. However, the request to delete other information, such as Guo’s
entry records, was denied on the grounds that Guo had given consent, and
there was no evidence to show any illegal processing of personal information
on the park’s side. Dissatisfied with the ruling, Guo decided to appeal.
The court’s decision basically rests on two lines of questioning: whether
the technology was officially banned by law and whether consumers had
given consent to the collection of personal information. Since the technology
was not forbidden by law, consent would be sufficient to establish its legality,
which, as we have seen in this case, can be tricky as the consent recognized via
the legal form of a contract did not really reflect the consumer’s true intent.
The sole reliance on this consent mechanism exposed the lack of regulations
around this highly controversial technology.
Indeed, this is still a developing area globally. While the EU has been con-
tinuously issued various regulations and guidelines on personal data and AI
adoption, in the United States there is no federal law for personal information
protection nor federal regulations on the use of facial recognition. While local
governments such as San Francisco, Oakland, and others had implemented
rules to ban or restrict the use of facial recognition, the rules mainly apply to
government bodies, and therefore little regulation so far exists on its applica-
tion by commercial entities, except for several local laws such as the Illinois
Biometric Information Privacy Act.
In this Guo vs Hangzhou Safari park case, Guo had three areas of con-
cerns: first, whether there was any oversight from relevant government bod-
ies regarding the park’s use of facial recognition; second, the park had not
provided sufficient information regarding the specific facial recognition
technology it was using, nor any information regarding the risks of technol-
ogy; and third, during his visit on location he witnessed the lack of discre-
tion and security measures on the park’s part when its staff used personal

Xiao Liu

phones to scan people’s faces. What he demanded here was strong oversight
in order to more effectively evaluate and enforce the reasonable and neces-
sary principles on the adoption of the technology and to ensure the security
of the sensitive information.
In fact, as the court was deliberating its decision, the PIPL (draft) released
in Oct 2020 included specific regulations on the use of facial recognition tech-
nology and the processing of sensitive biometric information, and a spokesper-
son of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress reiterated
in December 2020 that the PIPL stipulates the legitimate ground and risks
assessment required for the implementation of such technologies.36 It should
be noted here, the PIPL applies both to commercial entities and government
agencies, as the PIPL contains a section that specifically focuses on the data
collecting and processing activities of government agencies. This means that,
all the general rules specified in other section of the PIPL also apply to govern-
ment agencies, such as the requirement for informed consent and minimum
principle; at the same time, specific cases regarding the performing of certain
duties by the government agencies, such as criminal investigations, are subject
to separate considerations. Rather than seeing Guo’s case and other cases sim-
ply as addressing the misuse of personal information in the commercial do-
main, they in effect raised public conscious and empowered common citizens
to act in this tension-ridden area.
Guo had previously also sued Apple for its payment services but dropped
the case eventually due to difficulty in battling the big tech company. Already
seen as a spokesperson for public discontent with the prevalence of facial rec-
ognition, he mentioned in media interviews that, although a lawsuit against
personal information violation could be burdensome to individual consum-
ers, it was his goal that this lawsuit could provide practical guidance to estab-
lish more effective legal rules and practices for the protection of personal in-
formation. Guo’s comments show that the results of the lawsuit per se became
less important than the fact that the incident itself has become a case for the
consumer’s right to control his personal information.
Before Guo’s case reached a ruling decision, in September 2020, a law
professor Lao at Tsinghua University decided to sue her Home Owner’s
Association for installing facial recognition for entry authentication.37 A
scholar of criminal law, Lao started to research relevant regulations of facial

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

recognition when she noticed the high-frequency media exposition of the

controversies around the technology and published her findings online. The
lawsuit, as expected, stirred up another wave of media and public expres-
sions of concern over the controversial technology. In Lao’s view, legislation
always lags behind rapid developments of technology and waiting for legisla-
tion to catch up was akin to “using a horse-pulled carriage to chase the flying
rocket.”38 In this sense, the lawsuits functioned more as accelerators to fore-
ground some of the most urgent issues emerging from the fast deployment
of the technology: what kind of legal qualifications and procedures should
be required before an institute can be allowed to employ facial recognition
technology? What security measures are required for an entity that has col-
lected sensitive biometric information? What are the criteria for “reason-
able, necessary, and proper” collection of sensitive biometric information?
In response, some local governments were experimenting with regional
regulations. The City of Tianjin on December 1, 2020 passed a regulation
that restricts the illegal collection and use of sensitive biometric informa-
tion for identity authentication, which includes a forbiddance on the use of
face recognition.39

The Complexity of Governing Personal

Information: Two Court Cases
If the first facial recognition case attracted media attention because it con-
cerns a highly contentious technology, two other cases brought by individual
consumers against dominant tech platforms were worth mentioning, not only
because they predated the Guo vs Hangzhou Safari Park case, but more im-
portant because they demonstrated the complexity in governing personal in-
formation within the increasing complicated digital ecosystem. In the Ling
vs Douyin/Duoshan case, a PhD law student named Ling, when registering
for the two social apps, was prompted with a list of “people whom you might
know” recommended to be connected with on the apps. Appalled by the accu-
rate algorithmic matching of the apps, Ling suspected that his phone contacts
list had been accessed by the apps without his approval. He thus brought before
to the Beijing Internet Court a lawsuit against the two apps, both of which
were run by Bytedance. In the Huang vs Tencent case, the plaintiff Ms. Huang,

Xiao Liu

in using “WeChat Reading,” an app provided by Tencent, incidentally found

that her reading information, including books she had been reading, the length
of her reading time each day, and her reading notes had been shared with
her contacts on WeChat without her knowledge. She thus brought a lawsuit
against Tencent. Both cases were accepted by the Beijing Internet Court and
the trial decisions were reached in July 2020, which demonstrated a consistent
approach the court adopted in both cases.
In both cases, a key issue here is whether the violation of personal infor-
mation necessarily leads to the violation of privacy. In the Ling vs Douyin/
Duoshan case and the Huang vs Tencent case, plaintiffs claimed both per-
sonal information and privacy violation. Ling believed that the apps’ intrusive
recommendation of possible contacts based on his personal information vio-
lated his rights to “seclusion”—a reference to the one of the four privacy torts
as established by William Prosser as the legal foundation and organizing con-
cept for privacy protection in the United States.40 This reference to the U.S.
privacy concept shows the plaintiff’s familiarity with and free mobilization of
U.S. conventions for its defense.
Yet the legal definition of privacy is complicated and varies across jurisdic-
tions and cultures even before the internet age. Legal scholars compare the dis-
tinctive approaches to privacy in Germany and in the Unites States. German
law views the privacy tort as safeguarding human dignity that rests upon a
unitary concept of personality rights, which has a constitutional dimension in
the EU. American tort rights in privacy lack such a basis in constitutional law,
and therefore privacy considerations in practice are often balanced with the
constitutional right to freedom of expression, which often involves an evalu-
ation of possible public interest in access to the underlying data.41 In China,
it was a debatable question among legal professionals whether personal infor-
mation protection should be considered as part of privacy protections rooted
in personality right or should go beyond personality right, an approach that
leaves interpretative space for data economy.42 Zhou Hanhua, for example, be-
lieves that, while there are overlap between privacy and personal information
protection, the latter as a component of public law is much broader than the
scope of the personality right upon which privacy protection is based.43 The
Civil Code passed in 2020 appears to take the second approach by offering
separate articles on privacy and personal information.

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

In its ruling on Huang vs Tencent case, the Beijing Internet Court on the one
hand acknowledged that the collecting and processing of personal information
requires the user’s consent, and on the other hand, it ruled that most informa-
tion concerned such as contact lists and reading history in this case should not
be considered “private,” and therefore the defender’s mishandling of personal
information did not necessarily constitute “privacy violation.” In its written
judgment, the court emphasizes the function of personal information in social
interactions and public interests. It explains that, with individual activities leav-
ing increasing digital traces behind, simply collapsing personal information into
the category of privacy would obstruct normal social interactions.
However, the court was also careful not to set up a rigid boundary between
private and nonprivate personal information, as the line is always shifting be-
cause of technological developments and social consensus. Rather than fixat-
ing the category of private information, it advises a context-specific approach
(“场景化模式”). In the case of WeChat contact lists, it argues:

As WeChat is becoming the major tool of social interactions for a large

number of users, social relationships reflected by contact lists may have
evolved from an intimate circle to a sum of the user’s total social re-
sources. Some people may even choose to use separate WeChat accounts
for social or work relations. The privacy degree of contact lists therefore
may differ in each individual case. As a result, the nature of accessing
and processing contact lists by apps varies in each case, and the privacy
expectations of different users can also vary in specific contexts.44

Here the court, rather than starting from a transcendental notion of pri-
vacy, kept the line between personal and private information fluid. In this
way, the social and communication dimensions of personal information will
not be easily collapsed into the defensive and forbidding nature of privacy pro-
tection. This also kept the question open of whether contact lists should be
seen as private information in future cases for context-specific judgment.
Similarly, in the Ling vs Douyin case, the plaintiff argued that the app’s
automatic display of the city in which the user is located based on his IP ad-
dress violated his right to control his personal information and privacy. The
question of whether an IP address is personal information is an unsettled one.

Xiao Liu

While the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act both stipulate
that the decision depends on whether IP addresses are “reasonably capable” of
being associated with or “linked” to an individual, in practice the interpreta-
tion of “reasonableness” is not easily determined. Does it refer to the reason-
able capacity of the IP address processor, or the capacity of any third-party
entities to make the link?45 That can make the decision in individual cases
drastically different.
In this case, while the defender argued that the city information was only
vague geolocation information that cannot identify individual users, the
court adopted the “associable or linkable” approach, and ruled that the IP ad-
dress when combined with the user’s phone number that the app had collected
would become personally identifiable information. Yet that did not make it
sensitive information: the display of the geolocation information on the user’s
interface did not involve improper publicizing of that information, and the
plaintiff had no evidence to demonstrate the sensitivity of that information,
nor any actual disruption caused to his personal life. But the court also reit-
erated that the decision was limited to this case, and that the line between
personal and private information should be context-specific, taking into con-
sideration the evolution of technology, the scenarios of application, the opera-
tional logic of products involved, etc.
Finally, the court recognized the case as the opportunity for guiding cor-
porates’ practices of personal information processing, and prompted internet
companies to take personal information protection as integral to its own busi-
ness growth:

Internet companies should take into consideration users’ rights when

developing technology and designing products. In our case here, the
notarial certificates submitted by the defender shows that the defender
is working steadily to meet the compliance requirements. This dem-
onstrates that regulated practices of personal information processing
will enhance technological innovations, rather than impede industrial
development. Regulation and security measures are crucial to the
accumulation and usage of data resources, and measures of reasonable
protection will help build a good balance between personal informa-
tion protection and big data utility.46

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

As this was a high-publicized civil lawsuit that directly litigated against

improper collection and processing of personal information, the court appar-
ently expected that the ruling would exemplify the basic guidelines for similar
lawsuits in future. It also affirmed the value of “reasonable protection” as con-
ducive to technological innovations and economic development, not simply a
“zero-sum” game. Yet as can be seen in both cases, the challenge lies precisely
in the decision on where the reasonable boundary should be.
Another contentious issue in both cases were to decide whether the users
had given informed consent to the apps for the processing or sharing of their
information. The court also kept the issue flexible in specific contexts rather
than relying simply on the formality of consent. In the Huang vs Tencent case,
even though the service agreement of the app WeChat Reading aimed to so-
licit consent from the user to share her reading information with the user’s
WeChat friends, and Huang had given the consent when adopting the app,
the court decided that it was not sufficient to constitute informed consent.
Here the court adopted the criterion of “transparency,” that is “the clarity
of the purpose, methods, and scope of information processing sufficient for
a rational user to make voluntary, specific and clear decision in specific con-
texts.”47 In this case, the court believed that the default setting of sharing con-
tacts lists between the two apps and the defaulted sharing of the user’s reading
information with her contacts didn’t meet a user’s normal expectation, and as
a result, obstructed the user’s freedom to build her own online profile through
controlling her own digital traces and online information.
In the Ling VS Douyin case, the court provided a different line of argument.
The question here was whether the app’s recommendation of contacts was based
on informed consent. In digital networks this issue was more complicated than
it initially appeared to be. According to court records that explain how the app
recommended contacts to its users, the app first of all accessed and stored with
their consent other users’ contacts lists, which contained Ling’s phone number
before Ling became a user of the app. When Ling registered on the app with
his phone number, his information was matched with previously collected in-
formation from other users —his acquaintances, and, based on this, the app
recommended to Ling a list of contacts to be connected.
While acknowledging that the processing of personal information in the
contact list should in principle be based on the double consent from both the

Xiao Liu

phone users and the contacts on the lists, the court raised the question of the
feasibility and efficacy of such practices. The full quotation is useful here:

Strict enforcements of the double consent requirement regardless of

the use scenarios might cause the loss of balance of interests in specific
contexts. As data is a crucial factor of production in the era of the
digital economy, and information is the foundation for data, extreme
(defensive) protection of personal information may result in surging
cost in information processing and data utilization, even to the extent
of impeding the healthy development of the information industry. It
is therefore necessary to decide according to the specific use scenarios
whether certain use of personal information is reasonable.48

Recognizing the inadequacy of resting legitimacy purely on the mechanism

of notice and consent, the court conducted a detailed analysis of the purpose,
methods, and impact of processing the information concerned in this case. In
its ruling, rather than judging solely based on informed consent, the court in-
stead shifted to the tech company’s improper storage of information, and it de-
cided that the app should have deleted the plaintiff’s information in the first
phase when it collected such information from other users’ contact lists and
found no matching phone number among its registered users at that point.
It should be noted that the problems with sole reliance on the consent
mechanism for data processing have been well-documented and discussed
among data and privacy professionals globally. The mechanism, derived from
contract law, has often become merely a formality due to the obfuscating lan-
guage of the notice that prevents the user from obtaining a true understand-
ing of the terms, and proved to be increasingly impractical due to the high fre-
quency that the user has to give consent given the constant involvement and
flow of personal information within the expanding digital ecosystem.49 The
five legal rulings in addition to consent for information processing stipulated
by the GDPR are generally seen a way to address issues that might arise from
the consent mechanism. While there is no national general personal data pro-
tection law in the United States, the California Consumer Privacy Act adopts
“notice and opt-out,” rather than strictly take explicit consent as the precon-
dition for processing. China’s PIPL draft, in addition to broad consent, adds

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

“separate consent” and “written consent” to address the variety of scenarios

and situations, such as in the case of processing sensitive personal informa-
tion. It is a common challenge for global data policymakers to address the pri-
orities and balances of interests under different scenarios for data processing.
The Beijing Internet Court’s flexible handling of the requirement of informed
consent resonates with such recognition of consent dilemma, and acknowl-
edges the complexity of the ways in which personal information is embedded
in increasingly digitally-mediated social interactions.
These cases took place at a time when the drafting of the PIPL attracted
immense social and media attention and resonated with the already hyper-
active public discourses on personal information crisis and the urgency of
personal information protection. The trial of these cases put pressure on the
practical executions of data protection principles, even though the PIPL had
not been officially passed and enacted yet, and the laws and regulations for
personal information protection were still piecemeal. In all three cases, the
plaintiffs are well-informed individuals with a good knowledge of legal stat-
utes and institutions, or with strong legal assistance to litigate the cases: Guo
is a university professor of law, Ling is a PhD student in law, while Huang in
the WeChat case is a staff member of a law firm. As a well-informed plaintiff
who was likely familiar with existing personal data protection conventions in
the United States, Europe and other places, Ling, for example, took pains to
obtain notified evidence regarding the privacy settings of the app, such as the
time length for the storage of cookie, consent requests, service agreement of
other social media platforms, etc. Although the issues they litigated against
seemed to be minor in the sense that “no actual harm” could be proven, which
was an argument often put forward by the defender’s side, their “low-stakes”
nature highlighted the symbolic significance of the lawsuits. Interestingly,
such types of “low-stakes” litigations have been encouraged among law school
students by their universities and professors as part of their education to gain
practical experience, and litigating against big companies and organizations
for their personal information and privacy policy has become common among
these future legal professionals.50
However, on the other hand, the difficulty in proving “actual harm” also
indicates the burden of such lawsuits on individuals, even for informed plain-
tiffs as in these cases. Although the illegal collection and trade of personal

Xiao Liu

information had generated wide public concern, it was still a momentous de-
cision for individuals to resort to legal means to protect their rights, mainly
due to the individual cost associated with launching a lawsuit on personal
information violation. The burden of proving harms often falls on the part
of the plaintiff, and without the proof of substantial harm, compensation for
personal information violation is often meager compared with the time, en-
ergy, and financial costs the plaintiff has to invest in the lawsuits, not to men-
tion the stress that individuals cope with when battling powerful companies
and organizations.
Recently, the Public Prosecutor’s Offices (People’s Procuratorates) in more
than 14 provinces started to take personal information violation as part of
public interest litigations,51 a mechanism introduced in 2012 to permit an
“authority or relevant organization as prescribed by law” to “institute a civil
action against conducts that result in environment pollution, infringes on
consumer rights, or otherwise harms the interests of the public.”52 Such an ini-
tiative was specifically designed to address the difficulties in evidence collect-
ing, as well as the economic and time cost and other obstacles that individu-
als have to tackle in order to litigate against personal information violations.
In other words, while citizens have the legal means to protect their personal
information through lawsuits, it is also recognized that individual lawsuits
can be inefficient and not effective enough, and public-interest litigations by
Procuratorates and relevant state offices are considered a way to address the
limitations of individual lawsuits.

The unveiling of the PIPL (Draft) is commensurate with the initiatives and
moves of the Chinese government in data regulation and protection over the
past decade. Personal information protection is recognized as an integral part
of the national strategy towards data-driven innovations and data-based gov-
ernance. The drafting of the law also draws extensively from global trends and
routines of data regulation, notably the GDPR, such as in its defining of “per-
sonally identifiable information.” These legislative efforts also resonated with
the hyperactive public discourse around personal information and Chinese
consumers’ awakening to protecting their personal information and privacy.

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

These recent lawsuits demonstrate such intense public interest, and the con-
scious efforts of Chinese citizens to defend their rights.
The legislative efforts and the legal cases around personal information show
that Chinese data policymakers and enforcements are also striving to define
the proper boundary of personal information protection, a problem similarly
faced by global data policymakers and legal professionals. As data plays in-
strumental functions in social interactions and activities, it is also broadly ac-
knowledged that the protection of personal information should also take into
consideration the social nature of data and avoid hindering the flow of data for
healthy social communication. Given the fuzzy and ever shifting boundary of
personally identifiable data, some critics worry that the GDPR’s definition of
personal data might result in the near future that everything will be or will
contain personal data, leading to the GDPR becoming the law of everything.53
Among the global data policy communities, debates about the balance
between data utility and personal data protection have never ceased. Recent
developments around the world, especially the implementation of the GDPR,
also show the complexity of data governance in negotiating and balanc-
ing interests of different parties. Among Chinese data policy researchers,
there is a common understanding about the difference between the U.S. and
European approaches to data protection. Some researchers believed that the
U.S. approach is more pro-business and conducive to innovations, whereas the
European approach takes human-rights protection as the fundamental of data
protection but is less friendly to industrial development and technological in-
novations.54 Although this binary has been criticized as oversimplification,55
the impact of personal data protection on technological innovations and busi-
ness opportunities always arises as a concern in discussion. Some data profes-
sionals and corporations advocate for what they regard as the U.S. approach
to data policy. As can be observed in the court decisions in the recent cases
discussed above, law enforcement indeed presented caution not to hurt the
fundamental business operations of the internet companies, while also reit-
erating that the regularities in personal data collection and processing is the
prerequisite for the healthy growth of the ecosystem.
The challenge in defining the proper boundary of personal information
protection reflects the deep tension in data governance, not only in China,
but worldwide. The technical difficulty in defining the boundary of personal

Xiao Liu

information is rooted in the existing paradigm of data regulation’s focus on

individual subjects and self-management, which is predicated on individual
consent and proving individual harm. This often runs into problems as dig-
itally-generated information becomes increasingly indispensable to all sorts
of social interactions and activities, and the boundary between society and
individuals is constantly blurred and shifting. Legal scholar Julie Cohen has
sharply pointed out both the conceptual contradictions and the institutional
failure of the model of privacy protection that places the individual and indi-
vidualized control at the center.56
In practice, regulations centered on personally identifiable data offer
limited protection of individual rights. This is because data analytics and
algorithmic profiling, such as scoring and predictive policing, often occurs
through the grouping of traits and behaviors not necessarily reducible to in-
dividual traits but nonetheless affects groups and individuals. This kind of
algorithmic grouping and predictive analysis may lead to what privacy expert
Sandra Wachter calls “discrimination by association,” a situation in which
a person is treated significantly worse than others based on the person’s as-
sumed relationship or association with a vulnerable group.57 This exposes the
limits and weakness of the PII (personal identifiable information)-based pri-
vacy and data protection in addressing the harms and discrimination arising
from big data.
Additionally, the imbalanced power between individuals and big com-
panies and organizations that have more financial and legal resources also
makes it an onerous burden for individuals to defend their rights. Such in-
adequacy and impracticability of individual-based personal data protection
has led researchers and practitioners to think beyond the existing paradigm,
and propose, for example, the notion of group privacy.58 While the discus-
sion of alternative approaches is beyond the scope of this paper, it is clear that
China’s data protection and governance is faced with similar challenges as is
with elsewhere. It is not too late yet to start conversation and collaboration to
tackle the challenges of data governance, and understand the shifting regime
of human rights arising from rapid deployment of disruptive technologies.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the
U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

1. For a translation of the draft, see
2. On September 28, 2020 the ruling of the Court of Justice of the Europe Union in the Data
Protection Commissioner v. Facebook Ireland and Maximillian Schrems (Case C-311/18)—
often referred as Schrems II, invalidated the EU–U.S. privacy shield for transferring personal
data from the EU to the United States, the data protection Safe Harbor which the EU court
found no longer inadequate to ensure the protection of EU personal data from access and use
by U.S. public authorities on the basis of U.S. domestic law. See “E.U. Court Strikes Down
Trans-Atlantic Data Transfer Pact,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.
3. Washington Post, “China’s Influence on Digital Privacy Could Be Global,” Washington
Post, August 7, 2018. For a more nuanced study about the complexity of China’s social credit
system, see Chenchen Zhang, “Governing (Through) Trustworthiness: Technologies of
Power and Subjectification in China’s Social Credit System,” Critical Asian Studies, 2020,
4. This is aligned with the differentiation between algorithmic governance and algorithmic
regulation in AI research community. See Katzenbach, C. andUlbricht, L., “Algorithmic
Governance,” Internet Policy Review, 8:4 (2019), DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1424
5. Wenhong Chen, “Now I Know My ABCs: U.S.-China Policy in AI, Big Data, and Cloud
Computing,” Asiapacific Issues, No. 140 (Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2019).
6. “Suggestions on Building a more comprehensive mechanism for market allocation of the
factor of production”《关于构建更加完善的要素市场化配置体制机制的意见》印发,
7. “China must accelerate implementation of big data strategy: Xi,” Xinhua, December 9, 2017,
8. Zhou Hanhua, “The opportunity to make Personal Information Protection Law is finally here”
《个人信息保护法》立法机遇期已经到来, October 2016,
9. For a concise timeline of China’s data governance published in English, see “Evolution of
China’s Data Governance Regime,” Sacks, Shi and Webster,
10. Zhou Hanhua, “The opportunity to make Personal Information Protection Law is finally
11. Global Times, “China’s internet users reach 900 million, live-streaming ecommerce
boosting consumption: report,” Global Times, April 28, 2020,
12. China Daily, “Student suffers fatal cardiac arrest after telephone scam,” China Daily, August
25, 2016,
13. Ibid.

Xiao Liu

14. Xinhua News, “How a Tsinghua University professor being swindled out of more than 10
million yuan right after selling his condo”清华教授被骗千万细节, Xinhua News, Sept 22,
15. Xinhua News, “90 percent internet scams arose from information leaking”Xinhua News,
March 3, 2018, 九成网络诈骗因信息泄漏
16. South Metropolis Daily, “A ‘Xu Yuyu act’ is needed to root out personal information leaking”
根治公民信息泄漏乱象,需要“徐玉玉条款”, South Metropolis Daily, August 27, 2016,
17. PengPai, “Civil Code and a ‘Xu Yuyu act’”, 民法典与“徐玉玉条款,” PengPai, November 1,
18. For example, the Henry Classification System is a method using fingerprints for
criminal investigation in British India in the late 19th century. Fingerprints were also
adopted for identification in various contexts such as for contracts-signing. See Keith
Breckenridge, Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South
Africa, 1850 to the Present, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
19. Hu Ling, “Face scanning: identity system and legal regulations” 刷脸:身份制度与法律规
制, forthcoming from Faxue 2021 (no.2).
20. For a discussion of this, see Hu Ling, “Beyond the code: from cyberspace to the mechanism of
production and control in the physical world” 超越代码:从赛博空间到物理世界的控制/
生产机制, Huadong zhengfa daxue xuebao 2018 (no.1),
21 “Increasingly diverse application scenarios for facial recognition technology, particularly in
22. Xinhua News, “Facial recognition is used widely for offline payment and delivery”人脸识别
技术正广泛用于线下支付取快递等, Xinhua News, April 16, 2019,
23. Chain News, “China first criminal case concerning facial recognition” 中国人脸数据刑事
24. Sina News, “AI face-swapping is not merely about ‘losing face,’ but privacy” AI换脸不止是
丢脸 隐私问题Sina News, September 10, 2019,
iicezzrq4711996.shtml ;
25. Yicai, “Risks of Zao’s ‘face-swapping with one keystroke’” Zao梦空间“一键换脸”隐忧,
Yicai, September 3, 2019.
26. Xinhua News, “Standard for facial recognition use in finance is to be issued soon”人脸识别
领域相关金融标准将出, Xinhua News, September 25, 2019,
27. “Personal information of patients in Tianjin and their intimate contacts leaked”天津新增
病例和密接者隐私被泄漏!别让个人隐私泄漏成为疫情的“二次伤害” https://www.
28. Sina News, “Personal information of patients and their families leaked in Shanghai”沪确诊
者的密接者及亲朋信息疑外泄 涉六人姓名身份证手机号, Sina News, November 12,

Understanding China’s Governance Space around Personal Data

29. “Publicizing public health information and protecting personal information: a

debate during the COVID-19 pandemic” 公开涉疫个人信息防止泄漏 疫情期间
30. “Campaign against Telecommunication crimes has shown a succuss ”电信诈骗治理取得阶
31. “A Notice On A Targeted Campaign Against Apps’ Illegal Information Intrusion By
The Ministry Of Industry And Information Technology,” 工业和信息化部关于开
展App 侵害用户权益专项整治工作的通知,
32. “The MIIT Required In 2019 More Than 2234 Apps To Correct Their Information
Practices” 工信部:2019年至今已责令2234款违规APP进行整改,改
33. Xu Duoqi, Shiya Tang, and Dan Guttman, “China’s Campaign-Style Internet Finance
Governance: Causes, Effects, and Lessons Learned for New Information-Based Approaches
to Governance,” Computer Law & Security Review: The International Journal of Technology
Law and Practice, 35:1 (2019): 3–14.
34. Nicole Ning Liu, Carlos Wing-Hung Lo, Xueyong Zhan, and Wei Wang, “Campaign-Style
Enforcement and Regulatory Compliance,” Public Administration Review, 75:1 (2015):
35. Xinhua News, “First Civil Lawsuit Against Facial Recognition In China” 中国人脸识
别第一案, Xinhua News, November 11, 2019,
36., “The PIPL will have articles specifically regulating facial recognition ”个人信
37., “Tsinghua Professor Refuses Facial Recognition At Residential Entry” 一
清华教授,拒小区人脸识别门禁!她给出理由,, https://news.163.
38. Ibid.
39. “Tianjin and Hangzhou regulate the use of facial recognition”多地规范人脸识
别:天津立法禁止采集人脸信息 杭州等地出手监,
40. Paul M. Schwartz and Karl-Nikolaus Peifer, “Prosser’s “Privacy” and the German Right of
Personality: Are Four Privacy Torts Betterthan One Unitary Concept?”, California Law
Review, 98:6 (December 2010): 1925–1987.
41. Ibid, 1925–87.
42. Yang Lixin, “Personal Information: Legal Interests or Civil Right?”个人信息:法益抑或民
事权利, Weixin,
43. Zhou Hanhua, “The Legal Positioning of Personal Information”个人信息保护的法律定位,
Fashang yanjiu no.3 (2020): 44–56.
44. Chain News, “Written judgement of first instance of the Huang vs Tencent Case”

Xiao Liu

黄某诉腾讯微信读书案一审判决书, Chain News,

45. Nefi Acosta, “Are IP Addresses ‘Personal Information’ Under CCPA?,” The Privacy Advisor,
April 28, 2020,
46. “Written Judgement of first instance of the Ling vs Douyin case” 法学博士诉抖音案一审判
47. “Written Judgement of First Instance of the Huang Vs Tencent Case.”
48. “Written Judgement of First Instance of the Ling Vs Douyin Case.”
49. World Economic White Paper, “Redesigning Data Privacy: Reimagining Notice & Consent
for Human-Technology Interaction,” July 2020,
Redesigning_Data_Privacy_Report_2020.pdf .
50. “Law students of Shanghai University sued Tencent”上海大学法学院学子竟因此起诉了腾
51. “Public Prosecutor’s Offices of 14 Provinces Take Personal Information Violation As Public
Interest Litigations” 个人信息网上贱卖,14省检察院将个人信息保护纳入公益诉讼,
52. Su Lin Han, “Public Interest Litigation China Background Memo,” https://law.yale.
53. Nadezhda Purtova, “The Law of Everything: Broad Concept of Personal Data and Future of
EU Data Protection Law,” Law, Innovation and Technology, 10:1 (2018): 40–81.
54. Cao Jianfeng, “The Relationship Between Internet Innovation and Regulation”论互联⽹网
创新与监管之关系, Xinxi anquan yu tongxin baomi, 2017 (no.8): 77.
55. Zhou Hanhua, “Exploring the Methods of Governing Personal Data, And Defining the
Directions of Personal Information Protection Legislation” 探索激励相容的个人数据治理
之道—中国个人信息保护法的立法方向, Faxue yanjiu 2018(no.2),
56. Julie E. Cohen, “Turning Privacy Inside Out,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law 20:1 (2019): 1–31.
57. Sandra Wachter and Brent Mittelstadt, “A Right to Reasonable Inferences: Re-thinking Data
Protection Law in the Age of Big Data and AI,” Columbia Business Law Review, 2019 (2).
58. Linnet Taylor, Luciano Floridi, and Bart van der Sloot, eds., Group Privacy: New Challenges of
Data Technologies, (Cham: Springer, 2017).


Chinese Intentions in the

South China Sea

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a 2020 Wilson China Fellow,

a Center Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli
Institute for International Studies, and a Non-Resident
Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

What are China’s intentions in the South China Sea? In this article I pres-
ent an analytical framework for understanding intentions based on two
components: 1) distinguishing between intentions about the process and
those about the outcome and 2) incorporating information from discourse,
behavior, and capabilities. Through applying the framework, I argue that
China wants to establish de facto control over the South China Sea, mean-
ing sovereignty over the disputed islands and the ability to dictate the rules
of behavior in the surrounding waters. These intentions are detrimental to
U.S. and allied interests. I conclude with a list of recommended measures
the United States can take to prevent Beijing from incrementally advancing
its control over the South China Sea.

Policy Recommendations:
● The United States should expand and increase the tempo of its military
operations in the SCS to show that China has not dissuaded the United
States by increasing the risk to U.S. forces.

● In the military realm, the United States should prioritize coalition

building to ensure a free and open South China Sea.

● The United States should specify that its U.S. alliance commitments
extend to protection of countries’ rights within their EEZs.

● To further increase costs to China, the United States could warn Beijing
that it may reconsider its neutral position on the sovereignty of the South
China Sea disputed islands to support claimants with less expansive and
restrictive EEZ claims unless China moderates its EEZ claims and agrees
to international law positions on maritime rights.

● The United States should respond immediately to each aggressive

act China takes in these waters, regardless of its target. Moreover, the
United States should be sure to respond even when a treaty ally is not
involved—this would stress that the United States is serious about

Chinese Intentions in the South China Sea

protecting international norms, regardless of who the transgressors are

and what the violation is.

● When China commits an act of aggression or coercion, the Chinese

assets or organizations involved should not determine the U.S. response.
Instead, the United States should feel free to respond to paramilitary
actors as it would to military actors.

● To reconstitute its deterrent, the United States should seek military

access to new partner facilities in the SCS. The United States should also
improve the quality of other claimants’ maritime reconnaissance and
surveillance capabilities and build their defensive capabilities.

● Lastly, the United States should spearhead and prioritize a diplomatic

solution to the South China Sea disputes, with or without China.
Countries in the region disagree with China’s interpretation of
international law. If the rest of the claimants agree about the islands’
sovereignty and the rights granted by those islands and ask the
international community to help enforce the agreement, China will have
difficulty pushing its claims and pressuring states unilaterally to concede
to its demands. If Beijing refuses to follow these rules, Washington
should form a coalition to restrict China’s access to technology and
related information. Washington should even threaten to expel Beijing
from the relevant international regimes.

Oriana Skylar Mastro

What are China’s intentions in the South China Sea (SCS)? Some analysts
see Chinese motivations as purely economic—eighty percent of China’s
crude oil imports pass through the SCS, and there are substantial oil and
natural gas reserves in the seabed.1 In this interpretation, Beijing is simply
looking to secure its energy supplies and protect commercial trade routed
through the SCS. 2 Others believe Chinese intentions to be more nefarious
and expansive; specifically, China is building a “great wall of sand” to keep
foreign powers,3 namely the United States, out. Here, regime legitimacy may
mandate that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exercise complete con-
trol over the SCS, requiring countries to obtain Chinese permission to con-
duct any activities there.4
Understanding China’s desired end state in the SCS and the way it plans
to achieve its aims means touching upon some of the major questions regard-
ing the future of regional security, the role of the United States in the re-
gion, and U.S.-China great power competition. Territorial disputes are by
far the number one cause of interstate conflict.5 In the SCS, there are several
disputes over offshore islands and overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones
(EEZs) involving China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and
the Philippines. China has resorted to force twice against Vietnam in the
Paracel Islands and seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012
through military coercion.
Even though the United States is not a party to the territorial disputes,
Chinese intentions in the SCS concern Washington from three perspectives.
First, many U.S. allies have interests in the SCS. China’s claims involve the
Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, and thus the U.S. may become involved in a mili-
tary conflict to defend the Philippines’ claims. The SCS also has significant stra-
tegic value for Northeast Asia countries, such as U.S. allies South Korea and
Japan, as most commerce and oil flows pass through the SCS shipping lanes.
These waters also contain significant oil and gas reserves, along with fisheries.
The SCS is similarly crucial for Australia because almost a third of its trade
passes through the SCS.6 Second, China is challenging the traditional inter-
pretation of the international legal maritime regime; the United States, as the
established hegemon, is interested in upholding international law, norms, and
order. U.S. and Chinese military assets often come into contact with one an-
other as each side tries to exercise and interpret its rights. Third, as the guarantor

Chinese Intentions in the South China Sea

of regional peace, the United States wants the disputants to handle the territo-
rial disputes in the SCS in peaceful, non-coercive ways. Even without a conflict,
China’s effective dominion guarantees the power to carry out a series of activi-
ties, including economic exploitation and coercion, air defense identification
and maritime exclusion zones, military projection, and the extension of political
influence further into the West Pacific. These potential strategies threaten to re-
sult in a reconfiguration of the regional security architecture that is unfavorable
to the United States and its allies and partners.
This article aims to provide insight into Chinese ambitions in the SCS. I
begin by summarizing my analytical framework for understanding intentions,
which distinguishes between intentions about the process and those about the
outcome and incorporates information from discourse, behavior, and capa-
bilities. This kind of analysis leads to nuanced and specific conclusions about
Chinese intentions.
I then argue that China wants to establish de facto control over the SCS,
which means it wants to gain sovereignty over the disputed islands and to dic-
tate the rules of behavior in the surrounding waters. These intentions are det-
rimental to U.S. and allied interests, mostly because of Beijing’s ultimate goal,
or its outcome intentions; China’s process intentions are only problematic
insofar as they are effective and efficient. Specifically, China is currently rely-
ing mainly on economic, political, and indirect military means to pursue this
goal, perhaps because its military capabilities fall short. There are early signs
that the military’s role in establishing Chinese control will increase soon. The
greatest uncertainty revolves around 1) the risks China is willing to run to
achieve its goals; 2) whether China will be willing to settle for less if its pursuit
of de facto control risks war with the United States; and 3) whether its process
intentions will change once Beijing has more viable military options.

A Framework for Understanding China’s Intentions

Why is it important to decipher intentions? For scholars, state intentions play a
pivotal role in many international relations paradigms. For example, differing as-
sumptions about state intentions and the ability to decipher them constitute the
fundamental difference between offensive and defensive realism;7 the question
of whether exogenous factors such as international institutions or norms and

Oriana Skylar Mastro

ideas can shape what a country wants is central to the theoretical frameworks of
liberalism and constructivism.8 Intentions play a particularly central role in in-
ternational relations theories about rising powers and great power competition,
which most agree currently characterize U.S.-China relations.9 But looking at
relative power alone is insufficient to understand whether power transitions will
lead to war. Instead, it is Beijing’s intentions that largely determine the degree of
threat that China’s rise may pose to the United States and its allies.10
To understand Chinese intentions in the SCS, I take a unique approach.
First, I evaluate processes and objectives separately. I define process intentions
by the methods preferred and the factors that influence how a country thinks
it is best to achieve its goals. In other words, how is China attempting to
achieving its maritime goals and why? Outcome intentions, in contrast, refer
to “what one wants to bring about, accomplish or attain.”11
The distinction between outcome and process is analytically useful because
a country may have revisionist outcome intentions but pursue its goals within
the confines of acceptable international behavior. For example, a country may
want to change the territorial status quo but attempt to do so through legiti-
mate means, as Kosovo did when it declared its independence in 2008.12 Or a
country may have a legitimate objective, such as economic growth, but pursue
it through problematic means, like occupying a resource-rich country or en-
acting trade barriers in violation of its international commitments. The disag-
gregation of the intentions also facilitates more effective strategic responses by
allowing for more granular detail in prioritization and feasibility assessments.
Second, I transparently triangulate the three major sources of information
about Chinese intensions: China’s national discourse, its behavior, and the
military capabilities it is building. When these sources contradict each other,
I evaluate the potential sources of bias and discuss why I weighed some pieces
of information more than others or what certain sources cannot tell us with a
high degree of confidence.
Lastly, a caveat. Some believe that intentions are unknowable and thus are
eager to dismiss this whole exercise as futile. I disagree with this viewpoint—we
can learn certain things about intentions with varying degrees of confidence.
Because states deliberately implement plans to pursue specific objectives, it is
theoretically possible to decipher current ambitions. I focus on current ambi-
tions, which refer to what the leadership has already decided it wants to achieve

Chinese Intentions in the South China Sea

in the future. Future ambitions are important, but given limited resources, the
United States needs to address China’s current ambitions first and foremost.
Moreover, there is path dependency to ambition. Rising powers have likely
taken into account projections of future power when devising current ambi-
tions. If China does change its maritime ambitions, the direction and nature
of the change will reflect the aspects of the current intentions that have pro-
duced results, any negative consequences, and any socially and politically vi-
able replacement ideas for intentions that have not produced results.13

Chinese Intentions in the SCS

The rest of this contribution will evaluate Chinese discourse, behavior, and
capabilities in the SCS to clarify China’s ultimate goals in the SCS and show
how its leadership is currently attempting to achieve those goals.

Chinese Discourse about the South China Sea

China scholars often use Chinese sources to gather information about Chinese
military strategy, doctrine, and intentions. Specifically, China specialists look to
two categories of information: 1) official documents and speeches made by senior
CCP officials and 2) discussions among Chinese academics and think tank ex-
perts who may be informed about, or in some cases may even influence, internal
discussions.14 The difficulty is that not all of this national discourse is equally in-
formative. Leaders have incentives to misrepresent their positions; authors may
have ulterior motives; and some voices may not represent the government’s views
because they lack authority or influence, or because they are in the minority.
Considering the potential bias of national discourse, I focus on three fac-
tors when evaluating wh